Tayarisha Poe’s debut feature film “Selah and the Spades” is an ancient, familiar story. It’s about legacy and vice. It’s about power — how you get it, how you keep it, how you lose it. It’s stylish and Shakespearean, featuring crime kingpins, bootleg rackets, snitches and plenty of stitches … but also prom, senior pranks and AP bio tests.
As it so happens, “Selah and the Spades” is a mob movie wearing the clothes of your standard high school drama.
Set in Haldswell School for Boarding and Day Students — the sort of magical private school that only exists on TV — the titular character Selah Summers (Lovie Simone, “Share”) is queen bee, a matriarch of matriarchs. A straight-A student, the cheerleading captain, possessor of wicked style and, of course, the ice-blooded, iron-fisted leader of a drug-dealing racket, Selah’s got a lot on her plate in addition to the looming approach of graduation.
As an expository narrator tells the audience at the beginning of the film, Selah’s drug ring, the Spades, peddles in “booze, pills, powders, fun,” but is just one among many factions that facilitate illicit activities for the Haldswell student body. The Sea provides cheating services, the Skins regulate gambling, the Bobbys throw parties and the Prefects act as middlemen with the school administration. If Selah doesn’t find a successor soon, her drug empire is wont to be absorbed by one of these competing factions, and her legacy hangs in the balance.
Remember, this is high school. It’s Shakespearean, but weirdly Shakespearen, like “Bring It On” meets “Macbeth” meets “The Godfather” meets an angstier Wes Anderson. It’s not like HBO’s “Euphoria,” a show that similarly tried to represent the underbelly of the American teen’s life, complete with an unblinking vision of drug-addled and sex-infused strife and recklessness. No, it’s an altogether different brand, one that's engorged with self-seriousness and overdramatic to an almost laughable degree. Cliques have mottos and sign actual, written treaties with one another. Posters on the wall scream “FACTIONS are GANGS; GANGS are against SCHOOL POLICY.” In response to the cancellation of prom, one mousy character stammers, “This is insane that they’re doing this. I mean, this is America!” to which another character soberly replies, “No, it’s not America when you’re on school property … it’s the United States of Haldswell.”
I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was all a bit ridiculous at times. I’d also be remiss to deny the film’s flair and earnestness. Scenes are delicately shot, costumes are fun and stylish, and the prop department clearly had a blast designing the opulent campus and ornamented dorm rooms of Haldswell Boarding. Simone’s performance as Selah is gentle and yet commanding, and performances by her right-hand-man Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome, “Moonlight”) and protégé Paloma (Celeste O’Connor, “Wetlands”) are equally believable and ooze that hallmark teenage commixture of angst and bravado.
The Machiavellianism and shadow politics of a prep school underworld are ultimately a hard sell. They come off a little like that high school production of “Romeo and Juliet” you saw while visiting home last summer, where the Capulets and Montagues are competing coffee shops, Mercutio has a skateboard and Tybalt rocks a letterman jacket. It’s a little uneven, a bit over-indulgent, but a decent enough way to kill a few hours. And considering the nature of the world at the moment, plenty of us have hours in — yes, I’m going to say it — spades.