Teen Spirit

In the 1980s you had The Breakfast Club, Heathers and Class. In the 1990s, it was Clueless and Rushmore. And in the 2000s, Mean Girls and Superbad ruled the high school teen movie. Now we have Selah and the Spades, written and directed by Tayarisha Poe, who makes her feature debut here. Set in an elite Pennsylvania boarding school, the film has a heightened quality, something akin to Rian Johnson’s Brick.  

While that was a neo-noir transposed to a school setting, Poe’s film is more conventional; it deals with the cliques that run the student body. Among them, the Spades is a faction run by Selah Summers (Lovie Simone), a confident, ruthless 17 year-old senior. Her group appears responsible for supplying “party favours” – drugs, basically – to the other teenagers, organised in conjunction with her loyal lieutenant Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome, who featured in Moonlight).

The bulk of the film is a power play, as Selah is looking to groom a replacement for when she eventually leaves these hallowed halls. When she spies the younger new girl Paloma (Celeste O’Connor), she believes she’s found her ideal candidate, someone whom she recognises herself in. Yet as the story unfolds, Selah’s jealous nature gets the better of her. Is she able to accept another ‘chosen one’ running her precious group, the Spades?

Poe’s film is one where you see no classroom activity, and there are almost no adults here – bar Selah’s mother and the high school principal (Jesse Williams). It’s not easy to believe the Spades are responsible for distributing narcotics – they don’t exactly look the sort – although, as one violent act shows, there are consequences to their activity. Perhaps Poe’s point is about the privilege these insufferable kids enjoy inside their hermetically-sealed bubble.

Where the film differs from others is pushing African-American adolescents to the forefront. Some of the secondary characters, such as Ana Maria Mulvoy-Ten’s theatre-loving Bobby, are white, but this inversion strikes an interesting and welcome note. Blessed with confident performances all round, particularly Simone who isn’t afraid to make Selah unlikeable, this is certainly an unusual high school tale; only time will tell whether it will stand up to those classics of the past. 

Selah and the Spades is available to stream on Amazon Prime from on 17 April. For more details, visit here.

James Mottram