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Tayarisha Poe, like her partial namesake, has a gift for the uncanny. She is the photographer and film-maker behind this feature debut, which began as an online multimedia project and was developed as a conventional movie through the Sundance screenwriters and directors labs. What has emerged is an intriguing, opaque, tonally elusive story that seems weirdly unfinished. It is set in a privileged high school – a world of ivy-covered stone buildings and shady quadrangles where rich kids are separated into malign and mutually hostile cliques. It has a touch of Donna Tartt and Bret Easton Ellis, a hint of Heathers and a bit of the elegant, disdainful satire of Dear White People.
Somehow, though, it is odder, more stylised and contrived, always holding out the possibility that it is set in the future, or in an alternative present on some other planet, or inside the head of one of its characters who is having a disturbing dream – the kind that ends just as it is about to give up its meaning. Right until the closing credits, I half-expected the face of each person on screen to flip upwards, revealing a Stepford-like set of dials.
The school’s most important gang is the Spades, whose raison d’être is selling drugs to the student body. They are led by 17-year-old Selah Summers (Lovie Simone), who is cool, smart, with a blueblood air of entitlement. Her lieutenant is Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome, who played the teenage Kevin in Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight), whose job is to source the drugs from a tough neighbourhood that they all know not to visit alone, then supervise distribution and keep an eye on which customers may need to be beaten up if they have not paid their outstanding credit. Selah will be leaving soon for college and, on the hunt for a successor, she likes the look of a new kid: Paloma (Celeste O’Connor), who is a keen photographer for the school paper and takes some very flattering shots of her.
The point is not that Paloma is nice and innocent and gets progressively corrupted. No, Poe shows that Paloma has all the easy-going, unremarkable mannerisms of teenage niceness, but is entirely on board with everything the Spades stand for. She isn’t as groomed and haughty as Selah and she is more trusting, but there is no substantial difference between them – Paloma just mysteriously swims into her new prominence.
What impresses Selah is Paloma’s connoisseurship of power and prestige, as revealed in her excellent pictures. These, tellingly, are of Selah in the “spirit squad” of cheerleaders – who are never shown at an actual sports event, only rehearsing in the gym. And in fact, no student is ever shown in a lesson. There are none of the traditional shots of students crowding around lockers in corridors. The school almost looks as if it is on vacation. It is virtually deserted, an empty city state. The only teacher on view is the ineffective principal (the school uses the British term headmaster), played by Jesse Williams, who fails to discover from one non-paying drug-consuming pupil why he is covered in cuts and bruises.
In any other case, the narrative trajectory would be clear. We are surely heading for some climactic or purgative flourish of cruelty or evil, which will at least reveal the wrongdoers and lead to some modest tidying of the Augean stables. But this doesn’t happen in Selah and the Spades. In fact, it seems as if this already happened, just before the current story began, and that part of the numbed, affectless feel of the whole film is because everyone is in denial about it.
For all its fantastical vein, this movie has an interesting grasp of what high school is really like – not a Hollywood narrative, neither funny nor tragic, and certainly nothing like that most unreal of genres, the coming-of-age drama. Rather it’s messy, downbeat and inconclusive, without teachable moments – like everything else in real life. I’d love to see Poe take on an adaptation of Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel Prep. In the meantime, we have this really interesting debut.
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Source: The Guardian
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