Pennsylvania’s Haldwell School sits on vast green grounds on the edge of a wooded area, away from civilisation and governance – although, bless his heart Headmaster Banton (Jesse Williams) tries. He attempts to push School Policy and assert authority but tends to, more often than not, falls short. The elite boarding school is in the hands of five factions (gangs are against the rules): The Sea, The Skins, The Bobbies, The Prefects, and The Spades. The Spades provide the ‘booze, pills and powders’ and business is booming. They all run the school but the most power appears to be in the hands of Queen bee Selah Summers (Lovie Simone) and her closest ally and associate Maxxie Ayoade (Jharrel Jerome).
Selah is in her senior year and should be thinking of college. It turns out it’s only her mother (Gina Torres) with whom she has a terse relationship who actually is, seeking an institution which will “keep you in your place, save you from yourself. Something has to.” The young entrepreneur would rather concentrate on her business and leaving it to a worthy protégée. Enter new scholarship student and keen photographer Paloma Davis (Celeste O’Connor) who appears to take it al in her stride and quickly aligns herself as a Spade.
Near the film’s beginning, The Spirit Squad (cheerleaders) perform one of their routines and it is here that several facts are laid out for us. “They never take the girls seriously… when you’re 17, everybody is telling you what you do with your bodies…” The crux of it is, The Spirit Squad took back that power, they decide the uniforms, routines and how much skin to show. Selah uses that power and runs with it. The control intoxicates with a fine line drawn between leaving behind a legacy and being erased from history, and it during those moments of fear that Selah exhibits the real darkness of her character, and where Lovie Simone comes into her own as we start to see that perfect façade begin to crack.
First time writer/director Tayarisha Poe makes an impressive and memorable feature debut – and a perfect jumping-off point for an original TV series (handy since one has already been commissioned). Selah… is an extraordinary and unique look at young adult life encapsulating satire, surrealism and style in a world of teen politics with razor-sharp dialogue and noir character study. It’s part Lord of the Flies, and Brick (ish) by way of Dear White People, Heathers and Ozma of Oz – that opening quote and the world it belongs to is hinted at throughout via the ruling princess (AKA the one true monarch), school colours, props, costumes even the location within the mise-en-scène, the Factions stand-ins for the Land of Oz’s quadrants.
Certainly Haldwell gives off the feeling of a world far from the emotional ties of home. This is thanks mainly to Jomo Fray’s hypnotic cinematography and Aska Matsumiya’s eclectically composed soundtrack replete with contemporary music and mystical dreamcatcher-like chimes adding an ethereal quality to an already uncanny setting. Colour is vibrant and varied, the use of light sublime and heightened. Make no mistake everything here is, it’s school (eye roll) – despite never actually depicting any lessons or classrooms. While the almost bored-sounding voiceover narratives ground in verisimilitude.
However, the film’s strength lies in its ensemble of characters – “a film by us all” as the credits declare – from poised perfectionist Selah to diet-Margo Tenenbaum Bobby (Ava Mulvey Ten), peacekeeper Paloma, loved-up Maxxie (Jerome continuing his run of multi-faceted characters and solid performances), and immaculate, yet inept, Headmaster. Whether these characters and their respective players turn up in the TV series remains to be seen but Selah and The Spades is an impressive, if fraught, first term in the halls of Haldwell.
Selah and The Spades is available now to stream through Amazon Prime Video.