At the Haldwell School, there are five factions: The Sea; The Skins; The Bobbies; The Prefects; and The Spades. The Spades are the most dominant faction, lead by Selah Summers (an unfocused but perfectly able Lovie Simone), responsible for circulating illegal substances — “they will push you past your limit so you know what your limit is.” Selah and the Spades proposes to create a tight, interwoven world, with multi-faceted warring factions wreaking havoc on one another. Falling short of a cohesive overlying vision, debut feature director Tayarisha Poe tries their damndest to create a Northeastern bordering school aesthetic, but falls short of that, falling back on a typified CW style of young adult filmmaking. It all feels very teenage, from the acting to the writing, grasping at foundations, but rarely driving home its themes.
What works is Selah at the center of the school’s power dynamic. Simone emerges with some range. She’s a very capable actor and will find some good work off of the project. Her supporting actors land with a resounding thud. We want so badly for it all to fit together. Instead, it often feels like the crew is putting together a puzzle with misshapen pieces. The parts they have do not match or complement one another perfectly. Where they ought to zig, they zag occasionally, missing the tone of their intended line reading. It’s simply bad chemistry and not something that could truly be fixed or have gone well for the picture.
As Selah is moving on with age, she must name her successor. She gifts the power to Paloma (Celeste O’Connor, not yet seizing her real potential). The two never strike any decent sense of camaraderie. It’s unclear why Selah would hand her power down this way to begin with, except for lack of better options at the school. Then it develops badly from there. When the screen leaves Selah, it goes badly for it. When she arrives again, desperate to regain her fleeing power, it’s all the better for it.
What’s odd about Selah and the Spades is that it’s a movie at all. It would make much better sense as a limited series. The formation of houses, with their own roles, ought to lend to a more developed story, with many avenues for expansion. There are potential ideas here, ripened for full-series exploration. While Selah and the Spades does not live into its potential, it casts a bright light on a couple emerging young actresses sure to get work from it. There’s a fine idea here somewhere, it’s just not this idea.