You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Sundance Film Review: ‘Selah and the Spades’

A ferocious Lovie Simone plays an overachieving prep school mob-boss-in-training in writer-director Tayarisha Poe's compelling debut.

Tayarisha Poe

Lovie Simone, Celeste O'Connor, Jharrel Jerome, Gina Torres, Jesse Williams, Ana Mulvoy Ten.

1 hour 37 minutes.

Students from Haldwell, a woodland prep school decorated in floral pillows and electric candelabras, graduate prepared for any career, particularly the Mafia. This exclusive boarding prep school is controlled by five factions, and senior spirit captain Selah (Lovie Simone) commands the Spades, the most criminal of the clubs that distributes kush, acid, cocaine, Adderall and tequila around campus. By contrast, her biggest rival Bobby (Ana Mulvoy Ten) oversees the drama geeks. But Selah and Bobby’s battle to be the top boss of Haldwell is brutal. On this campus, kids who step out of line wind up swearing to the principal they got their bruises falling down the stairs. The No Bully Zone signs don’t seem to be working.

Writer-director Tayarisha Poe’s cold and stylish debut, commands attention. More specifically, Simone’s Selah seizes it. She stomps so close to the lens that her left eye fills the screen. At the start of the film, this stunning, unsmiling girl with braids down to her thighs, stares down the camera and says, “When you’re 17, you’ve gotta grab control wherever you can.” Selah is well aware of the limits society puts on women. For her, autonomy is political, whether it’s designing her squad’s short skirts and crisp, almost violent dance moves, or refusing to date because a boy should never have the power to make her cry.

Selah is convincing, but she’s not entirely telling the truth. She’s is a pathological perfectionist, the kind who tears people down to make sure she stays on top. She has to be the smartest, prettiest and coolest, which means practicing a fake smile in the mirror and softening her voice when she needs to sound charming. Her mother doesn’t help. When Selah gets a 93 on a calculus test, mom snipes, “What happened to the other seven points?” Yet, Poe is less interested in understanding Selah’s psychology than she is revealing it, slowly, as the senior tests a younger photography buff named Paloma (Celeste O’Connor) to see if she’s worthy of inheriting the Spades.

The film has more style than plot, but that style is terrific. The soundtrack purrs with jazzy drums and snares, cut with emo pop and Bing Crosby. When the kids run into the woods to get high, the camera chases after them all loose-limbed and playful. The tone is glancingly surreal, from the way Selah’s chest of drugs lights up when opened — like the Ark of the Covenant — to how characters suddenly appear at tables, deliver gossip and vanish. The party scenes glow with hazy, pastel lights, while a confrontation on the set of the class production of “Macbeth” is hemmed in by strings of skinny red yarn.

Selah can be funny. To sucker Paloma into snapping shots of Bobby secretly kissing someone else’s boyfriend, she invents a class called: “Modern Socialization in the Surveillance Era.” Yet, halfway though, Selah hears whispers of a snitch, and Poe decides to fade out the comedy, which saps the movie of some of its energy. From there, the film toggles focus between Paloma’s increasingly perilous swagger and Selah’s doubts that her own second in command (Jharrel Jerome of “Moonlight”) is up to the job — his crime: getting a girlfriend. Poe dangles the mystery of a disappeared student named Tila, but while the solution is interesting, it would be more effective to see Selah lay her cards on the table and really let ‘er rip. “That’s a mistake the whole world makes,” Selah coos. “They never take girls seriously.” We’re persuaded. Now, bring it on.

Popular on Variety

Sundance Film Review: 'Selah and the Spades'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Next), Jan. 28, 2019. Running time: 97 MIN.


An Argent Pictures presentation of a Novel Pictures, Secret Engine production in association with Cinereach and MVMT. Producers: Lauren McBride, Drew P. Houpt, Lucas Joaquin, Tayarisha Poe, Jill Ahrens. Executive producers: Terence Nance, Ben Renzo, Ryan Ahrens, Tony Parker, Derrick Brooks, Michael Finley, Drew Brees, Jenifer Westphal, Julie Parker Benello, Nancy Stephens Rosenthal, Chaz Ebert, Alex Scharfman. Co-executive producer: David Chan, Stephanie DeVaan, Gottfried Tittiger, Janet Tittiger, Ken Whitney, Liz Whitney.


Director, writer: Tayarisha Poe. Camera (color): Jomo Fray. Editor: Kate Abernathy. Music: Aska Matsumiya.


Lovie Simone, Celeste O'Connor, Jharrel Jerome, Gina Torres, Jesse Williams, Ana Mulvoy Ten.

More Film

  • Leonardo Dicaprio Once Upon a Time

    Leonardo DiCaprio's Earth Alliance Commits $5 Million to Amazon Fires

    Earth Alliance, an environmental initiative backed by Leonardo DiCaprio, has committed $5 million toward the preservation of the Amazon rain forest following an alarming surge in wildfires. After launching Sunday, the organization’s emergency Amazon Forest Fund is working to support local partners and indigenous communities in their efforts to protect the sensitive habitats within the [...]

  • (from left) Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson)

    Box Office: 'Hobbs & Shaw' Scores $102 Million Debut in China, Nears $600 Million Globally

    Universal’s “Hobbs & Shaw” returned to first place on the international box office charts, thanks to a massive $102 million debut in China. The “Fast & Furious” spinoff, starring Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham, collected another $120 million overseas, boosting its foreign tally to $441 million. “Hobbs & Shaw” is nearing the $600 million mark [...]

  • Angel Has Fallen

    Box Office: 'Angel Has Fallen' Rises to No. 1 With $21 Million Debut

    “Angel Has Fallen,” the third chapter in Lionsgate and Millenium’s action franchise starring Gerard Butler, had a stronger opening weekend than expected, collecting $21.25 million during its first three days of release. Those ticket sales were enough to top domestic box office charts, bumping last weekend’s champ, Universal’s comedy “Good Boys,” to second place. Starring [...]

  • Amanda

    ‘Amanda’ Takes Home Best Int’l Film at 15th Sanfic

    SANTIAGO, Chile    French director Mikhael Hers’ “Amanda” scooped up the Best Int’l Film award Saturday (Aug. 24) at the 15th Santiago Int’l Film Fest (Sanfic), which reported a 20% audience uptick in the past two years and continues to grow its reputation as the most vibrant and prominent film festival in Latin America’s Southern [...]

  • disney d23

    Cruella, Kit Harington and Black Panther's Return: Everything We Learned at D23 Day Two

    Not to be outdone by the avalanche of series orders and casting announcements bolstering the new streaming series Disney Plus, Walt Disney Studios showed off its film wares in a marathon presentation at D23 on Saturday. The Anaheim, Calif. expo brought star power, if perhaps fewer surprises than Friday’s presentation, as fans in princess and [...]

  • Harvey Weinstein, Katie Holmes, Taylor Swift'The

    Taylor Swift Downplays Association With Harvey Weinstein

    Taylor Swift’s association with disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein was among the topics the singer addressed in a revealing new interview with The Guardian. Weinstein held producer credits for the movies “One Chance” and “The Giver,” both of which featured Swift — in the former, a song, and in the latter, a supporting role. She [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content