You’ve been to movies with stories and characters similar to “Selah and the Spades,” but you’ve never seen one that looks like it.
“They never take the girls seriously,” says the title character of this Amazon Original. Like Regina George in “Mean Girls” or Cher in “Clueless,” she’s the queen bee of her school — in this case, an exclusive prep school whose students are mostly, like Selah, people of color. Also like “Mean Girls,” a narrator breaks down the hierarchy of the school’s cliques, but the movie veers in a new direction with this important detail: Selah and her compadres have cornered the school’s drug trade.
As played by Lovie Simone, Selah is more complicated than her fellow movie teen queens, and not just because she’s a ruthless mobster. She wears her hair in tiny braids that extend to her thighs and resemble a cape, as if she’s trying to protect herself from something. That something may be her overbearing mother; although Selah runs things at school, she becomes meek and defenseless at home, where she can do no right. Is she, like many bullies, belligerent because she is insecure? And how long is that going to work for her?
We see much of this adolescent crime drama through the eyes of Paloma (Celeste O’Connor), a naive newcomer who doesn’t stay naive for long. But we literally see it through cinematographer Jomo Fray, whose discerning eye is a big reason “Selah” made a splash at the Sundance Film Festival. The saturated colors and artful compositions of “Selah and the Spades” contrast with the often chaotic action, especially in a scene, shot from a distance, of Paloma and Selah confronting each other on a football field. They’re tiny, distant figures in a scene that recalls how “Lawrence of Arabia” made its characters look like insignificant dots on the landscape.
Writer/director Tayarisha Poe’s “Selah” is a decent movie, but the performances by its young actors are so authoritative that it feels like it could be one of those films, like “Dazed and Confused,” where years from now we’ll look back and marvel at how many of its performers became stars. Jharrel Jerome, who plays a drug runner, already has broken through, winning an Emmy for “When They See Us.” Several other actors, as well as cinematographer Fray, seem headed for big things, too.