Writer/director Tayarisha Poe has a defined style in her debut film Selah and the Spades. That style signals a unique voice, one that captures the point-of-view of a young African American teenager fighting for her power so hard that it drives her to some terrible actions. While the style is dialed in, Poe still has a lot of growing to do in her command of storytelling. Selah (Lovie Simone) is queen be of The Spades. The Spades are one of five factions or cliques at the elite Haldwell boarding school. The Spades handle drugs at the school. Each faction handles some part of the secret lives of high schoolers in regards to partying and cheating. Selah is a senior and her reign is about to end. She is actively looking for someone to groom into a replacement while trying to handle conflicts with the other factions. She befriends Paloma (Celeste O"Connor), a transfer student who is new to the rules of Haldwell. Selah feeds off her power and ability to control others into doing what she wants. It makes sense that she latched onto Paloma. Paloma is mostly interested in still photography but soon gets caught up in the drama of the Spades and the other factions. Poe has plenty to say here about the way in which Selah psychologically manipulates those around her. The issue for me was the approach to saying it. Rather than let her ideas emerge from interactions of her characters or the plot, she often stops her film to have a character delivers a moral lesson. For example, there is a full retelling of the story of the frog and scorpion. At other times, Selah seems to break the fourth wall by speaking directly into the camera about being a young woman having to fight for her own way. Those moments have some power but they are also heavy-handed and the plot of the film too often fades into the background in favor of making sure the audience gets the point of the film. The actors all show promise here. Simone is wholly convincing as Selah. O'Connor plays well off of her and is the film's soul. The supporting cast isn't as strong but the leads often sell the heavy-handed dialogue. Cinematographer Jomo Fray has a striking eye for compositions and colors. He captures some drugged-out scenes with a fresh approach, yet these moments lack connection to the larger story.
Selah and the Spades has a fresh, distinct style to it, one that signals that director Tayarisha Poe is someone to watch. Lovie Simone is a fierce on-screen presence and also someone to watch. The film, however, lacks a narrative focus to back these talents up. Too often the film fails to make its characters feel like real people. The plot may be heightened for drama but the emotional current beneath the veneer should resonate as honest. Style can be enough sometimes and oh what a style but here it is not enough to keep the viewer engaged.