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film review

Lovie Simone stars in Selah and the Spades.Courtesy of Amazon Studios

  • Selah and the Spades
  • Written and directed by Tayarisha Poe
  • Starring Lovie Simone, Celeste O’Connor and Jharrel Jerome
  • Classification R; 97 minutes

Rating:

3 out of 4 stars

Back during this year’s Sundance Film Festival – which was only four months ago, even though it feels like four years – writer-director Tayarisha Poe gave her feature debut Selah and the Spades a killer elevator pitch: “Clueless meets The Godfather.” That’s about perfect, as her heavily stylized drama enthusiastically mixes teenage anxiety with grown-up violence. It is not enough to be versed in the particular slang of modern youth in Selah and the Spades, but the age-old rules of omerta, too.

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The story follows Selah, whose crew runs her school's booming drug trade.Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Yet Poe is remixing more than Austen, Heckerling and Coppola in her tale of warring factions inside a posh East Coast boarding school; she’s scraping up the ingredients of the entire teenage and crime canons, pulsing them in a blender and throwing the resulting concoction against the wall, happy to watch it splatter. Rian Johnson’s Brick, Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood, Michael Lehmann’s Heathers, the entire oeuvres of Gus Van Sant and Wes Anderson – all inform Poe’s vision, to occasionally intoxicating effect.

The story follows high-school queen-bee Selah (Lovie Simone), whose Spades crew rules over her school’s booming drug trade with a calm menace. But graduation looms, and Selah needs someone to take over the trade, so she seeks out hard-luck scholarship case Paloma (Celeste O’Connor) in an attempt to groom a successor. Various complications – Selah’s increasingly distracted second-in-command (Jharrel Jerome), a new headmaster (Jesse Williams), a ghost from the Spades’s past – threaten to upend whatever plan is to be had, as well as unnecessarily complicate Poe’s A-to-C narrative.

But while first-timer mistakes abound – everyone except the three leads deliver performances so stiff I wondered if they were deliberate – Selah and the Spades is more than just a slick calling card. It’s impassioned, informed and sometimes furious work that could find Poe being name-checked herself not too long from now.

Selah and the Spades is available now on Amazon Prime Video Canada

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