Review by Sean Boelman
Written and directed by Tayarisha Poe, Selah and the Spades has set a precedent as the original and daring coming-of-age movie to beat this year. With a knack for world-building, this directorial debut allows Poe to explode onto the scene as one of the most exciting new voices in film.
The movie takes place in a prestigious boarding school in which the students are divided into five factions as the leader of the most powerful group searches to find a replacement who can maintain the group’s dominance once she graduates. Like a devilish cross between Divergent and Mean Girls, this film is both insightful and entertaining enough to cement it a spot among the modern classics of the high school genre.
The introductory scene provides a brief exposition to the audience, explaining the roles of the five factions within the school and the pre-existing dynamic that rules them, before throwing the viewer right into the middle of the conflict. Part of the fun of the film is finding one’s footing in the world established by Poe that is equal parts astonishingly surreal and surprisingly honest.
Once enough time passes for one to get acclimated to the ways of the factions, Poe turns the audience’s attention towards the main conflict. And while the movie is handling some themes that are common ground for the genre (finding one’s identity, coming to terms with change and the future), the way in which they are handled is far from conventional.
Part of what makes the film work so well is its character development. The movie offers a unique twist on the tropes by taking a character that would normally be the antagonist and humanizing her. Yes, Selah can be a bit of a bully at times, but everyone has had some of those moments in life that they aren’t as proud of (albeit likely to a lesser extent).
Lovie Simone gives a magnificent (and potentially star-making) performance in her lead role. The material she is given to work with is far from easy due to its multiple layers and unabashedly unconventional nature, yet she tackles it with grace and ease. She is perfectly cast in a role from which she becomes nearly inseparable.
The most impressive part of this film, though, is its execution. In a just world, this would win awards for its excellent sound design. The soundscape built for the movie by the sound team, when combined with the score by ASKA, is breathtaking and immersive. The cinematography is a bit rough around the edges, but is fitting given the purposefully chaotic nature of the script.
Selah and the Spades may divide audiences because it is far from your normal high school film, but it is one not to miss regardless. It’s an unmistakably bold debut, and Poe’s voice is the type that is so desperately needed in Hollywood right now.
Selah and the Spades hits Amazon Prime on April 17.