The intense stratification of teenage social life is stylised to dramatic effect in this bold debut from writer/director Tayarisha Poe.
Well-heeled boarding school Haldwell is ruled by five factions, each with their own specialty, including parties, gambling and cheating. The most powerful group is the Spades - who handle illicit substances - headed by ruthless cheerleader Selah, played by Lovie Simone in an utterly stunning lead performance.
In her final year, Selah is on the lookout for a worthy successor. She takes a shine to new day student Paloma (Celeste O' Connor) and begins to school her. But Selah's implacable facade faces challenges from multiple angles: her demanding mother (Gina Torres), the school headmaster (Jesse Williams) and her own paranoid impulses. It's tough to be the queen.
Selah and the Spades builds on other stylised depictions of the pressures of high-school life such as Heathers (1989), Rushmore (1998) and Brick (2005), but is far less interested in undercutting its drama with (overt) humour than any of those key antecedents. A sardonic tone emerges at times, but it never makes Selah seem any less imposing. One scene where she practises smiling in the mirror is truly chilling.
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The curious absence of cellphones and social media could be attributed to the time period (which is never made clear) or it's possible that what we're seeing represents a real-world depiction of conflicts that would otherwise play out digitally.
The mafia-like mercilessness to Selah's rule is repeatedly asserted - this shapeshifting teenage don really is something else. Most of the other characters remain a little underdrawn and the film's a bit uneven overall, although it's not hard to see why Amazon is developing this property as a television series. By the ending, there's a sense we've only scratched the surface of this unforgiving world.
Cast: Celeste O' Connor, Gina Torres, Jesse Williams
Director: Tayarisha Poe
Running time: 97 minutes
Streaming: Amazon Prime Video
Verdict: The kids aren't all right in this impressive and disconcerting high-school drama.