Synopsis: Five factions run the underground life of Haldwell School, a prestigious east coast boarding school. At the head of the most powerful faction – The Spades – sits Selah Summers, walking the fine line between being feared and loved.
Stars: Lovie Simone, Celeste O’Connor, Jharrel Jerome, Gina Torres, Jesse Williams
Director: Tayarisha Poe
Running Length: 97 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: I suppose it’s a natural feeling to be excited about what we know. When I was in high school, I devoured anything about that high school experience. Books, TV, movies, music, plays…anything. It wasn’t escapist entertainment; I enjoyed my high school quite a lot so I wasn’t looking for something better but I was interested in what it was like seen through the eyes/ears/prose of another. Those same feelings have continued through to adulthood and I know this isn’t some unique revelation because I’m fairly sure that’s how we’re supposed to relate as we age. Heck, I recently watched Four Weddings and a Funeral for the first time since 1994 and I appreciate it so much more in 2020 because now as opposed to then I’ve actually BEEN to a wedding and a funeral.
To that end, I find it harder and harder to take movies in a high school setting because I feel so far removed from that world and too often the filmmakers paint the students as nothing more than authority bucking party monsters. Instead of young rebels without a compelling cause, I crave either more authentic depictions or perhaps those that have a tad more bite to them. Plenty of streaming services offer intriguing options and indie film isn’t short on offerings that skew to the abstract (hello Knives + Skin) but it’s been a while since someone found the right balance.
Though it doesn’t always land on its feet, Amazon Prime’s Selah and the Spades comes awful close to a bulls-eye and that’s thanks to a kinetic energy pulsating throughout. Starting with a dynamite leading performance and filtering down through the cinematography, writing, and music, this is a movie that speaks to the here and now and isn’t attempting to remain timeless. In remaining focused, it allows the characters to have a particularly strong voice and amps up their narrative to create something well worth spending some time on.
There’s a neat little introduction to the five cliques that rule the hallways of the Haldwell School at the opening of Selah and the Spades. It’s here the film shows off the bat it has a sense of humor with a sharp edge to it and you better be prepared to keep up with its pace. Each groups serves a particular population of the student body but to hear the voice-over narration tell it, you’d think these were crime families watching out for their own. Sitting squarely at the top of the heap are the Spades, governed with respected imperiousness by senior Selah (Lovie Simone, an absolute revelation who has a part in the upcoming remake of The Craft) with assistance from her trusted right-hand man Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome, Moonlight).
Self-possessed and always focused on the end goal, Selah works to keep her group strong even when rumors of a turncoat are raised just as she is about to pass on her torch to the next generation of underclassmen. Under consideration for taking over is new student Paloma (Celeste O’Connor, Ghostbusters: Afterlife) who is quickly befriended by Selah not so much because of her potential but for how much Selah can mold her into the leader she wants her to be. As you can expect, forces outside and inside the Spades act to create situations that challenge Selah over the dwindling months before graduation.
It’s nice to find an original script like Selah and the Spades because I could easily have seen this one being adapted from a popular YA novel but writer/director Tayarisha Poe has clearly given a lot of thought to how each character moves throughout the film. While I would have liked there to be more to all of our central characters than what is onscreen, with the limited time we have Poe wisely sticks to the important beats. Only Selah is afforded more depth, explaining some of her control issues during a tense visit home with her severe mother (Gina Torres) who recites a familiar story with a cold acidity.
I don’t know how much Haldwell School reflects the current state of affairs in high school but no matter, I left Selah and the Spades once again glad that I am not a teenager. The pressures they are under are great and the choices they make have bigger consequences than when I was their age. Even if there are times when Selah drifts into dark Heathers territory, it’s the more realistic it gets that are the most scary sequences.