About halfway through Tayarisha Poe’s sublime Selah and the Spades, two character enter an auditorium set up for the upcoming school play of Macbeth. They discuss it like it is an afterthought, their lives are too complicated already. Turns out, they’re living it. Full of soliloquys, backstabbing and whispered plotting, the story of Selah and her cohorts is as close as you can get to modern Shakespearean tragedy as you can get as you come to realise early on, this isn’t your regular high school experience.
Selah (Lovie Simone) goes to the fictional Haldwell school, a place run by five student factions, much to the chagrin of headmaster Banton (Jesse Williams). Each faction runs their own rackets as Haldwell is a den of drugs, parties and every little vice you can think of. Holding the real power is Selah and her Spades who run the drug trade. Selah however is in her final year at Haldwell and feels her power waning before her eyes. She has limited time to find a worthy successor to maintain equilibrium. Her only hope lies in new student Paloma (Celeste O’Connor) if she is willing to relinquish the power that makes her special.
There is enough going on within the walls of Haldwell to fuel a dozen films and Poe smartly alludes to them but never lets go of the main story playing out before us, the internal power struggle happening within Selah herself. Although rival factions pop in and out, intent on usurping, especially the Bobby’s, led surprisingly by Bobby (Ana Mulvoy-Ten), the real threat is Selah’s own self destructive impulses and her fear of moving on from a society that up until this point gave her everything she needed.
It is an impressive look at modern high school through an incredibly stylised lens and the struggles of three wayward teens. Be it Selah and her one woman show, Paloma with her need for acceptance even if she plays it cool or Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome), Selah’s right hand who is looking to the future, letting go of the trivialities of life at Haldwell. While Poe’s story is full of machinations, this is a story of transitioning from one thing to another. How healthy that move is, that’s the real discussion here. Throw in issues of race, jealousy, rivalry and misplaced friendships and you have a powder keg set to explode.
Haldwell in all its lavish extravagance proves to be a metaphor for the new normal of education in America, a world of constant pressures, be them from your own parents, universities or your own mind. Selah is fighting with herself and everyone else in a competition that in the long run, doesn’t mean very much at all. Her relationship with her mother, played with calculated coldness by Gina Torres, twists her mind, the forceful inner voice of Lady Macbeth pushing her to embrace her worst impulses in the name of helping her succeed as a black woman in America. It’s all very symbolic but never anything less than enthralling.
Lovie externalises these struggles while making Selah both pitiful and powerful as she toys with Paloma, who O’Connor gives a fearless honesty. They are vibrant yet controlled performances that accentuate an already impressive script. Jerome plays Maxxie straight, the one person in all of Hardwell who sees it for the bubble that it really is, ensuring you know this is just a small world in one Selah and Paloma are not ready for. These are three utterly different characters and both Poe and her performers understand them completely.
As inner and outer struggles boil under the surface it all builds towards a finale that you will either love or hate, a psychedelic trip of a sequence that brings everything to the fore. Much like the finale of Uncut Gems, this is unnerving cinema due to a buildup you never notice, the kind that catches you off guard as it knocks the wind out of you. Much like the film itself. this is unexpected and not what you wanted but this is Poe’s story so what you want doesn’t matter.
Self assured and proud, this is debut feature filmmaking at its absolute best, an immersive story with a bold visual approach and an off-putting yet hypnotic tone that gives its performers room to breathe life into their characters while constantly servicing a broader narrative that embraces everyone from Shakespeare to Spike Lee, while retaining its own personality. If this isn’t perfect, its pretty close.