If there is one thing we know from the movies, it is that American High Schools have factions. They train people to adapt to ‘house’ life in universities and then condition them to be ruthless business leaders or media moguls. You don’t necessarily make your own faction; you might inherit it and feel obliged to keep it going like some bad tradition. However, it shapes your behaviour, like a broken heel makes you scrape your foot.
Writer-director Tayarisha Poe’s distinctive and engaging debut feature, Selah and the Spades introduces us to the five factions that maintain order – or rather indulge pupils’ vices – in the exclusive preparatory Haldwell School for Boarding and Day Students in upstate New York. As a voiceover tells us, one group are ‘teacher’s pets gone rogue’, who help students to cheat. Another, we are informed, deal in ‘anything you can gamble on. Football in the fall. Softball, basketball every spring.’ The African-American faction Spades, led by Selah (Lovie Simone) aided by her best friend Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome), deal ‘in the most classic of vices. Booze, pills, powder, fun… They will push you so past your limit, you won’t know what your limit is. They consider this a kindness.’ They use young children to distribute their product and have an unhealthy trunk filled with dubious fluids.
There is discontent. Selah is blamed for the expulsion of one of her acolytes. There is also an annual event to organise – a harmless stunt that cannot be traced back to them. Water or balloons? ‘A burst balloon sounds like a gunshot,’ one faction leader muses – not the kind of thing they want in a school setting. What they achieve in an early sequence is a miraculous display that stumps school staff.
Selah, we are told, is thinking of her legacy and takes on day student Paloma (Celeste O’Connor), a photographer for the school newspaper. Selah has a use for Paloma’s camera – snapping her main rival Bobby (Ana Mulvoy Ten) with a boy. She is a bully. She is also an inspiration, marshalling the basketball team and insisting – as she talks to camera – that their look is their own.
This is a study of bullying, in which violence is implied but not shown; Poe does not want to revel in what she is condemning. She shows how Selah’s weakness is exploited by others, how Selah punishes what she perceives as betrayal. Yet we also see how Selah struggles to define herself in the shadow of her mother. Selah tells Mom proudly that she got 93% in a test. ‘What happened to the other 7%?’ she is asked brusquely. Selah’s mother plots Selah’s future with little regard for her daughter’s own ambitions. When she sends her a sweater for the local university, Selah destroys it in disgust.
The real subject of the film is the pressure to succeed, placed on children at a young age. Poe doesn’t make the point that it is different for ethnic groups; rather they are similarly swallowed up by the same petty rivalries. Status overtakes happiness. There is also the disconnect between the anti-faction posters on the school corridors and the behaviour of the students. They mostly get away with it. Even when a school prom is cancelled, the students apply their ingenuity to stage an alternative.
Poe’s screenplay is erudite and knowing. There are none of the usual pleasures of the high school movie – comic japes and satisfying come-uppances, or even romance and sex. Selah makes a point of saying she has no time for love. We wonder if it is an affectation or whether she thinks she can only open herself up when she goes to university.
There are also no references to popular culture, save for the music listened to by Paloma through her headphones. The students are a culture unto themselves, being trained for a life separate from the masses.
Poe certainly knows what she is against – the idea that young people can self-regulate their vices. They are far too competitive for that. But there is no clear role model to aspire to. Interestingly, there are no inspirational teacher figures either. Just students with unnaturally high self-confidence.
Selah and the Spades breaks the mould of High School dramas. It engages you with the machinations of the students as they enforce the Omerta code of silence. We root for the characters when they work together for shared enjoyment; less so when they turn on one another. There is an unresolved tension between the pressure to succeed and effacing difference – where African American students can be just as accomplished as their white privileged counterparts. Like the best filmmakers, Tayarisha Poe poses a good question and allows the audience to consider the answer.
Selah and the Spades is exclusively available for streaming on Amazon Prime