By Gary M. Kramer.

Writer/director Tayarisha Poe’s feature debut, Selah and the Spades, is a precisely calibrated spellbinder. Anchored by an exacting performance by Lovie Simone as the title character, a senior at the Haldwell School, the film depicts the power struggles, rivalries, and jealousies that unfold among five underground factions at an elite boarding school outside Philadelphia.

Selah Summers is the head of the Spades, which provides the students booze, pills, powders, and fun for a price. If students don’t pay for the favors, the Spades “gotta leave a message” which usually involves facial bruising. (Upon meeting with one injured pupil, Headmaster Banton (Jesse Williams) questions why so many students are “falling down the north stairwell.”) The other factions are led by the Two Toms (Evan Roe), Tarit (Henry Hunter Hall), Amber B (Francesca Noel), and Selah’s biggest rival, Bobby (Ana Mulvoy Ten).

As the film opens, a voiceover indicates that Selah wants to ensure her legacy, but she currently has no one to pass her power on to. Her right hand man, Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome, from Moonlight), is also graduating. Enter Paloma (Celeste O’Connor), a scholarship student and underclassman who takes photographs for the school paper. When Selah asks Paloma for a favor photographing a romantic couple, Selah sees Paloma as a potential successor. As their friendship blossoms, and Paloma becomes more accepted by the seniors, there are tensions and jealousies particularly involving Maxxie and Bobby.

Selah and the Spades is all about wielding power. And Poe exhibits exquisite control over her material. She artfully frames scenes on stairwells. She uses mirrors to capture a character’s withering glance. She shoots in close-up to pull viewers into the action and generate emotion, as in a heated exchange between Selah and Maxxie. The film is shot almost entirely in the bubble of the boarding school campus, save one scene, when Selah visits her domineering mother, and bends to her will, rather than asserts her own.

Most of the drama depicts Selah’s calculating and at times opportunistic behavior. But Selah is not a one-note character; she is complex, and facing pressures. What she reveals about herself is intriguing. Viewers, like Paloma, may feel like a privileged confidant when Selah admits that she doesn’t date or have sex. But Selah also shows her true colors when yells at Paloma for distracting her during a crisis, or when she double-crosses someone, or is feared. Whether viewers support Selah’s behavior, or question it, is at the core of the film. Is Selah acting solely for her own self-interest, and does she go too far with her actions? Or is she being protective, defending a position she struggled to achieve? Poe leaves it to viewer to decide. And Simone’s performance is pitch perfect, especially in small moments, such as her practicing a smile in a mirror, or trying to appease her demanding mother during a phone call.

The film may be a bit thin on its overall drama, and a storyline about a rat among the factions feels underdeveloped. The possibility that Paloma is operating undercover is never really raised, though perhaps that would have been too obvious. But the story is not the central focus here. Selah and the Spades is about the power this particular teenage girl has and how she uses it to get what she wants. When Selah explains, “You gotta to grab onto that control wherever you can and hold tight for dear life—because they always try to take it from you…. They always try and break you down when you’re seventeen,” it is a riveting moment.

And scenes like these are what gives the Selah and the Spades its force. It understands this insular world it depicts, establishes the rules and then breaks them. Like it or not.

Gary M. Kramer writes about film for Salon, Cineaste, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News, The San Francisco Bay Times, and Film International. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina, Volumes 1 & 2

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