Sundance 2019 Review: Selah and the Spades Is Terrifically Sharp

It goes without saying that high school is Hell. As it turns out, the teen dramedy Selah and the Spades is a sharp look at the kind of students who make it into a hellscape. Particularly, the Queen Bee who rules the school. We may have seen high school films that demonstrate the vantage point of popular mean girls like Jawbreaker and of course, Mean Girls. However, Selah and the Spades still offers its own incisive demonstration of the political nature of high school cliques.

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There are five factions that make up the underground lifestyle of Halliwell Boarding School. The most powerful faction, the Spades, is led by Selah (Lovie Simone), a senior looking to find a worthy successor of her title once she graduates and her reign is over. She ends up taking a freshman named Paloma (Celeste O’Connor) under her wing and realizes she might be the perfect person to take her place. However, complications begin to ensue once Paloma questions Selah’s true intentions and Selah’s longtime friend Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome) becomes woven into this ongoing debacle.

Selah is a figure of such cunning duplicity. Yet she is portrayed with such complexity and star magnetism by leading actress Lovie Simone. When it comes to playing Saleh, Simone makes her a fascinating character to watch despite her ruthlessness by continuously walking a thin line between manipulation and insecurity. Selah may willingly rule her faction with an iron fist and target anyone she views as an enemy. But there are still methods to her rather vulnerable madness. It’s quite a breakthrough turn from Simone and I look forward to seeing what she does next.

That being said, Lovie Simone is still surrounded by a superb supporting cast. Jharrel Jerome, who you may remember as teenage Kevin from Moonlight, excels as Maxxie, the neglected best friend. Also, Celeste O’Connor matches Simone tit for tat as the innocent yet unassumingly witty Paloma. Meanwhile, Gina Torres impresses in her small supporting role as Selah’s overbearing mother along with Jesse Williams as the concerned headmaster of Halliwell.

The terrific ensemble of actors bring their A-game. However, credit should also go to writer/director Tayarisha Poe who constructs the battle between factions, or cliques, as if it is a quarrel between mafia families. The cliques ensure that nobody rats anyone out and no one from one clique infiltrates another. If that happens, drastic, non-violent measures will be taken. Along with the film centering around a dark-skinned anti-heroine, the mafia parallels allow Selah and the Spades to stand out from other high school movies within its realm.

If the films has any flaws, it’s that it sometimes feels longer than it is despite having a running time of 97 minutes. Other than that, Selah and the Spades is a tremendous directorial debut from Tayarisha Poe demonstrated with acerbic wit and also, a superb acting showcase for breakthrough star Lovie Simone. Simply put, it is a remarkable, well-constructed gem that deserves attention for its quality along with its attempts to escape convention.

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Matthew St.Clair

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