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.