Writer-director Tayarisha Poe has wryly described her debut feature (which played to enthusiastic responses at Sundance last year) as “Clueless meets The Godfather”. Set amid the five warring factions of an elite east coast US boarding school, it’s a woozy, hallucinogenic drama that reimagines the landscape of high school as a a daytime-noir terrain of crime and punishment, tangentially reminiscent of the life-and-death struggles of Rian Johnson’s arresting 2005 debut Brick. Picked up by Amazon, which swiftly started developing a spin-off TV project, Selah and the Spades is an audacious calling card for Poe, marking her down as a major talent to watch.
Lovie Simone exudes a brooding sense of purpose as Selah Summers, leader of the titular pack who run Haldwell school’s thriving supply of illicit substances. It’s the spring term of her senior year, and Selah, who will soon be leaving Haldwell, is looking for someone to whom she can pass the baton of power, to “ensure her legacy”. She thinks she’s found the perfect candidate in upcoming shutterbug Paloma (Celeste O’Connor), whom Selah imagines that she can “teach”, or mould in her own image (inevitable shades of Jane Austen’s endlessly reinterpretable Emma). But tensions are rising between Selah and her right-hand man Maxxie (Moonlight’s Jharrel Jerome), threatening the stability of her empire, and revealing cracks in Selah’s otherwise ice-cool exterior.
Beginning life as an online multimedia project in 2014, Selah and the Spades reportedly grew out of Poe’s response to a period of disaffection while working in a digital tech lab. “I wanted to tell a story about a girl who knew what she wanted,” she told Filmmaker magazine in 2015, characterising her anti-heroine as “a girl who runs a gang and is totally OK with doing whatever she needs to do to make that gang successful”.
Yet perfectionist Selah’s confidence only extends as far as the boundaries of the insular school grounds. In a telling scene with her quietly scolding mother, we see that Selah (who has a dark secret in her past) can be just as scared as her contemporaries of what awaits her when this particular dream is over. “It will put you in your place,” her mother tells her, “it will keep you safe from yourself”, adding curtly that “something has to”. But Selah doesn’t need reminding that what she has is transient, and that her queen bee, straight-A status may not be sustainable for long. All the more reason to live it to the full while it lasts…
Citing Fran Ross’s 1974 novel Oreo and Geoffrey Fletcher’s 2011 film Violet & Daisy as influences, Poe has created something that is simultaneously familiar and surprising – combining the hazy nature of teenage years with the more brutal power struggles of adult life, thrown together in a larger-than-life environment that is utterly artificial but still grounded in down-to-earth reality. At times, I was reminded of the rebellious spirit of Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood (Bande des filles), a vivid coming-of-age story that viewed its rites of passage through the prism of a Parisian girl gang. But this is altogether more surreal, a quality emphasised by Jomo Fray’s richly saturated cinematography, which floats ethereally down confined corridors, up candlelit staircases, and through idyllic woodland retreats, drenching the screen in verdant hues that contrast sharply with the satirical bite of the action.
There’s an equally expressionist edge to the soundtrack, which jumbles hard-cut jukebox selections with almost sci-fi-inflected tonal mood-scapes, weaving in and out of the dialogue. At times, composer Aska Matsumiya’s beautifully off-kilter cues reminded me of Jon Brion’s disorienting work on Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, the layered sound-design lending an air of tension to even the most apparently innocuous scenes.
As with many first features, there are some shortcomings. At times, it’s hard to tell whether the contrivances of the script and the stiltedness of some of the performances are archly deliberate or accidental, a quality that can break the spell of the movie’s trancey atmosphere. During these moments, it’s tempting to view Selah and the Spades as a triumph of style over substance, richer in visual promise than thematic rewards.
Yet there’s also something thrilling about Poe’s refusal to smooth the odd and potentially alienating edges off this very personal (and ultimately empowering) drama, suggesting a strength of creative purpose that will doubtless pay great dividends. She has a voice that is clearly her own, and a future that looks bright indeed.
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Source: The Guardian