Selah and the Spades (4 stars)

Selah and the Spades

Tayarisha Poe directs Lovie Simone in this classy and confounding teen flick

Like Heathers with more sincerity, or Dear White People sans in-your-face politics, Selah and the Spades takes a pinch of those, a dash of Cruel Intentions and The Craft, a dollop of Brick and still finds enough to say itself to impress. Set in The Haldwell School, an elite, isolated institution, but featuring a predominantly black cast, the feature debut from Tayarisha Poe defies and flirts with convention, as it finds a proud black teen fending off competitors and ruthlessly making her mark.

The teen in question, Selah (Lovie Simone), is co-head of one of five ruling factions who, unbeknownst to the teaching faculty, consider themselves the real power behind the school. Despite her intimidatingly immaculate exterior and control-freak personality, Selah is plagued by anguish when no one is watching. She runs the Spades with best pal Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome from Moonlight and When They See Us), with a responsibility for providing 'booze, pills, powders, fun'. This senior student is fiercely protective over her legacy as an entrepreneur, and is anxious to pass the mantle to a worthy successor. In the nick of time, in walks Paloma (Tessa Thompson-alike Celeste O'Connor), an aspiring photographer with an initially innocent air who, nevertheless, intrigues Selah.

Although the film hints that Selah harbours same-sex feelings she can't quite come to terms with, and shows her struggling to stand up to her impossible-to-please mother (Gina Torres), it's less bothered about breakthroughs. Some will find that frustrating but it feels true to its complex, rigorously guarded character. As with Waves, it's a portrait of a seemingly perfect teen floundering under pressure; Selah is not held at a reverent or fearsome remove but imbued with regular doses of vulnerability, as we glimpse behind the curtain of her carefully cultivated image.

Despite its lushly upmarket environs, Selah and the Spades deals in recognisable adolescent turmoil – peer and parental strife, rivalries and jealousies – and takes its subject admirably seriously, adding in a faintly unsettling edge by exploring what Selah might be capable of when pushed. If it's all rather gorgeous with smatterings of swagger, there's little in the way of overblown style. And don't let those fresh faces and wide eyes fool you; newcomer Poe reminds us that many of our most devastating deceptions and most shameful missteps occur when we're still figuring ourselves out. However, scrutinising this particular mean girl renders her far from a monster.

Available to watch on Amazon Prime Video from Fri 17 Apr.

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