A lot of films try to have a stylish, cool vibe, but only a fraction succeed. That’s even harder with teen coming of age stories as filmmakers force an ill-fitting vision of that all-too fleeting moment free of responsibilities. Selah and The Spades cuts the deck of mediocre teen films with an endlessly stirring effort.
It has the petty nastiness of a Cruel Intentions with some visual elements like a Baz Luhrmann production.
In her feature film debut, Director/Writer Tayarisha Poe already signals she’s going to be a filmmaker worth following.
Haldwell School is a prestigious boarding school run by five factions navigating pre-college life. The most powerful faction is The Spades run by the confident and very assured Selah (Lovie Simone, Greenleaf). Running the factions isn’t for everyone, especially since these squads deal in a number of vices from providing test answers, written research papers and illicit and prescription drugs.
There’s big money to be made in the faction and to be the leader is to be the chief money maker. Selah relishes in the power and prestige that comes with leading The Spades and is willing to do whatever it takes to keep her status within the factions. Whether it’s a little light blackmailing or binding and beating up snitches, Selah is fully committed.
Selah talks a good game of control and mastering her fate, but the facade falls whenever she speaks with her mother Maybelle (Gina Torres, Suits). Maybelle is stern and demanding — the type that questions what happens to the other seven points when Selah gets a 93 on a test. Still, her mother is far enough away she can occasionally be avoided.
If Selah is concerned about anything it’s her legacy. As a senior she needs to leave a successor to keep The Spades as the power faction. She finds an eager pupil in new arrival, Paloma (Celeste O’Connor).
Paloma’s arrival is timely as Selah’s right hand/best friend Maxie (Jharrel Jerome, Moonlight) starts getting less preoccupied with Spades’ business when he gets into a new relationship.
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Poe’s script is engaging made all the more complete by the sense that this is a lived-in world with stories that existed before the film started. There’s some serious tension among the factions particularly with Selah and Bobby (Ana Mulvoy Ten), the leader of The Bobbies. Poe has an interesting gaze at her characters choosing unique perspectives and angles with smart uses of zooms along with gorgeous lighting and color choices from Cinematographer Jomo Fray.
Simone gives a nuanced and layered performance beyond the typical Mean Girl corrupting an naive friend. O’Connor, Jerome and Mulvoy Ten are strong in supporting roles. It might have been nice for a larger role from Jesse Williams, who plays the well meaning, but ultimately inept school principal incapable of significantly affecting the factions’ power.
The music choices are smart as well complementing the story instead of loudly clashing against it.
Selah and The Spades is a fantastic film and one of my easy must-watch recommendations for 2020. It’s got a style, vibe and attitude all its own that seems to do an effective job of capturing the modern high school experience.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10
Photo Credit: Amazon