What on earth is “Selah and the Spades,” the new film arriving from Amazon Studios: Is it a high school clique drama? A gangster movie with cheerleaders? A portrait of a tyrant as an adolescent girl? A plea for sympathy for a misunderstood Queen Bee?
That uncertainty is the strength of writer-director Tayarisha Poe’s debut feature and ultimately its undoing. There’s dramatic ambiguity and there’s a muddle, and you may spend the movie’s 97 minutes trying to untwine one from the other.
Selah (a fearsomely focused Lovie Simone) is a senior at Haldwell Prep and leader of the Spades, one of the school’s five “factions” that make up a pampered criminal underworld impervious to adults. An unseen narrator sketches out the various turfs: There are the Scene (rogue teacher’s pets who handle the cheating), Skins (sports betting), Bobbies (theater kids in charge of illegal dorm parties), Prefects (school-government types for keeping the teachers at bay). And the Spades, who essentially run the student drugstore, selling weed, Adderall, coke, and what-not from a glowing camp trunk in Selah’s room.
Fretting over who will inherit her throne when she graduates, Selah chooses a self-possessed newcomer, Paloma (Celeste O’Connor), as an acolyte/regent. A photographer for the school paper, Paloma is initially stunned to be let into the golden circle, but disillusionment follows as she sees the war of wills between the Spades and the rival Bobbies, led by a beret-wearing diva (Ana Mulvoy Ten). Tension ratchets up when Selah learns there’s a mole among the Spades, possibly her loyal adjutant Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome). There are mysterious references, too, to an earlier court favorite who’s not around anymore.
“Selah and the Spades” is one of those high school movies where no one goes to class or appears to do homework; the one grown-up in view is a new headmaster (Jesse Williams) whose bluster only reveals him to be out of his league. There are echoes of other hermetically sealed academia films: Wes Anderson’s “Rushmore,” Rian Johnson’s “Brick,” Justin Simien’s original 2014 film version of “Dear White People.” Poe seems to have tapped into all these while trying to hammer out her own dark vision.
She gets frustratingly close. Simone’s Selah is a ruthless perfectionist driven by a mother (Gina Torres) who expects better than perfection. She’s a crime lord within her privileged universe and she’s also a frightened young girl. That she handles the fear by manipulating her friends and peers makes her an interestingly complex villain, and Simone expertly straddles both sides of the character, the steel and the vulnerability. It’s not a coincidence that the Hadley drama club is staging “Macbeth.”
Despite the ambition, ”Selah and the Spades” runs aground on issues of tone — to be blunt, it never locates one. It’s one thing to ask an audience to withhold judgment of an intentionally flawed central character, but the filmmaker herself can’t seem to settle on how she views her heroine — as a canny survivor, a shameless user, a woke teen-girl warrior, or a cautionary tale. Of course Selah can be all those things. But as drama it’s a traffic jam.
After all that card-shuffling, the movie’s energy peters out in a secret senior prom in the woods and a confrontation that doesn’t resolve the tension so much as deflate it. There are believability factors as well, including one character who we’re told has been slipped a hospitalization-level dose of hallucinogens but who seems to be walking around just fine.
“Selah and the Spades” showcases a talented writer and filmmaker furiously struggling to find her feet. When she does, the results may be something to see.
SELAH AND THE SPADES
Written and directed by Tayarisha Poe. Starring Lovie Simone, Celeste O’Connor. Available on Amazon Prime. 97 minutes. R (teen drug content and language)