She’s a mean girl. She holds court like Maleficent, Mistress of Evil. Does she reign over a kingdom? No. A street gang? No. Prison inmates? No. She’s the black teenage mobster don at a prestigious Pennsylvania boarding school.
This very eccentric look at the worst of humankind comes from the deepest creative crevices of young Philly filmmaker Tayarisha Poe’s mind. She’s a gifted writer and photographer who had this tale of debauchery in her sights for years: “I kept wanting to write characters that did whatever they wanted… about this girl who doesn’t get her hands dirty — she sends other people to do her dirty work.”
Teenager Selah Summers (Lovie Simone) is a tiny but very imposing leader of one of the five factions of student groups that populate the very snooty Haldwell prep boarding school. Selah: “When you’re 17, you have to grab on to control.” She lords over The Spades, the most powerful faction, like an aloof queen bee. Her minion Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome, Moonlight), does all the leg work in a very organized operation that deals drugs (coke to psychedelics), sells liquor, trades in contraband, holds raves and enforces her rules with violence. It’s a very profitable business model, that’s, well, criminal.
Selah becomes taken with a new student, Paloma (Celeste O’Connor, Irreplaceable You) a budding photographer (and mostly likely Poe’s alter ego). Like royalty adopting a new pet, Selah shows her protégé the ropes. They discuss sex, boys, drugs and faction rivalries, with the leader always treating her latest BFF like a servant. She demands that the shutterbug take pictures of the cheerleading squad and accompany her to parties. Meanwhile, Bobby (Ana Mulvoy Ten, TV’s American Crime) the leader of a rival gang is nipping at Selah’s heels, waiting for her to make a mistake. The pressure is on for the empress to perform her duties well. Instead cracks appear in her steely facade.
How in the world did Tayarisha Poe create these people? So evil. So treacherous. And they’re just kids! This is the work of a creative mastermind, or someone who should be on a shrink’s couch morning, noon and night. Assuming the aforementioned, moviegoers and Gen Z folks should keep an eye on Poe—she’s onto something.
One of the most notable assets of this fairly provocative film is its look. Under Poe’s guidance, cinematographer Jomo Fray (TV’s 195 Lewis) turns in very color-saturated footage with perfect lighting that makes everyone’s skin look incandescent, especially Lovie Simone’s. The sets—from dorm rooms to the headmaster’s office—look real (production designer Valeria De Felice, Night Comes On; set decorator Suja Ono). The colors are perfect (art director Taisa Malouf, All the Little Things We Kill). And the clothes on the cast strike the right balance between rich kid and urban chic (costume designer Jami Vullers).
Given the academic background and wealthy brat atmosphere, Poe works her magic. Using her very edgy script as a blueprint, and with the aid of a very talented cast, she weaves her tale of greed and power through characters that make depravity and rebellion everyday behavior. The central focus is a very ambitious and willful villain who becomes more fascinating and complex as the film rolls by in 97 tight minutes (editor Kate Abernathy). The quirky world within a world format works. The skewed values do too.
Lovie Simone’s performance towers over everyone else’s. She’s petite, with long braided hair that runs well down her back but never weighs her down. Reigning like a giant witch, she’s graceful, demonic, yet vulnerable in ways. To give her character depth and a background, she is bullied by her even more ambitious mother. Selah, “I got a 93 on the test.” Mom: “What about the other seven points!”
Celeste O’Connor brings a very needed innocence to Paloma, which counteracts Selah’s fiendish behavior. Jharrel Jerome as the lieutenant who can barely keep his sh** together shuttles between braggart and apologetic loser. You have to love the way that Ana Mulvoy Ten lets Bobby snap back at Selah and keep her on her toes. If you’re wondering where you‘ve seen the headmaster character before, he’s played by Jesse Williams from TV’s Grey’s Anatomy. The rest of the cast, mostly adolescents, brings it.
It’s rare that lead characters are based on mean people. The exceptions, like The Joker, have to be so evil they become fascinating. Selah is close, yet never reaches that rarified air of being absolutely and astonishingly vile. If she did, the film would resonate more. Also, there is a scene in the film where mom schools her daughter with an anecdote about a scorpion hitching a ride on a frog’s back across a pond, and stinging the frog after he promised not to. This didactic tale is way too threadbare. Would have been a good time for Poe to come up with her own catchy parable.
When you’re looking at moody, angst-riddled teenagers and wondering what they’re doing behind closed doors, try and lock the memories of this film out of your mind. They can’t all be like that, right?!
Someday you will look back on this film as the movie that launched the careers of a visually astute filmmaker, promising young actors and a talented tech crew who were all empowered by Poe’s very twisted homage to adolescents on the fringe.