One of the upsides of our new streaming-only world of movies is the chance to discover emerging talents, filmmakers whose feature debuts might otherwise have gone unnoticed amid the usual Friday onslaught of forgettable theatrical openings. One such shining light is writer-director Tayarisha Poe, whose movie “Selah and the Spades” marks the arrival of an assured, provocative voice with a richly eccentric vision to match.
In this teen comedy presented as highly ritualized political theater, Poe reframes an entire cinematic canon of mean-girl cliques, Tracy Flicks and adolescent shticks to come up with a language – and salient points about female authority, autonomy and self-worth – all her own. With as keen an eye for designing the frame as for casting the characters who populate it, Poe shows enormous promise as a storyteller and meticulous scene-maker.
We meet the title character as she is holding court at a tony Pennsylvania private school called Haldwell run by a network of “factions”: groups of students who are in charge of underground student life, meaning everything from cheating protocols to stunningly elaborate pranks. Selah (Lovie Simone) and her crew are in charge of parties, particularly the illicit substances that fuel them. Imperious, unflappable and intimidating, Selah approaches her mission with the no-nonsense drive of a Fortune 500 CEO. But as a senior, her task is to groom a successor, and a new arrival named Paloma (Celeste O’Connor) might be just the raw clay worthy enough for Selah to get her hands dirty.
With its clean staging and coolly mannered style, “Selah and the Spades” reaches back to Wes Anderson, Whit Stillman and even Stanley Kubrick. This is a film in which nearly every image looks worked over and carefully polished with no detail left unconsidered. Although the interpersonal dynamics of Poe’s world are immediately recognizable, she infuses the production with fanciful, often gorgeously whimsical touches: Even Selah’s trunk, which holds the stash she doles out to her classmates every weekend, is beautifully lit to within an inch of its life.
As pleasing as it is simply to watch “Selah and the Spades,” it would be an empty exercise without full-blooded characters. As the impossibly demanding Queen Bee at the story’s center, Simone manages to play Selah’s ruthlessness and vulnerability virtually simultaneously. O’Connor – who like Simone delivers a breakout performance here – is utterly believable as the Eve Harrington of the piece: A soft-voiced dove who might be hiding a talon or two under those delicate feathers.
For all its familiar contours, “Selah and the Spades” feels realistically grounded and surpassingly strange with its slightly surreal atmosphere growing more foreboding as Selah and the school descend into paranoia, competition and jealousy. Poe might not stick the landing with 100% success, but along the way she builds a world of imagination, daring and genuine substance. She gives Selah a magnificent soliloquy early in the film when she describes the impossibly high standards teenage girls are subjected to as a matter of course.
Although race is never explicitly invoked in “Selah and the Spades,” it’s woven through the text with gossamer finesse. The fact that Selah’s faction takes its name from a racist slur, and that Poe never comments on that fact, might be the best proof of all this is an artist unafraid to take whatever language she’s given – cinematic or social – and use it to tell her own truth on her own terms.
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