Review: Amazon premiere ‘Selah and the Spades’ gives high school movies a new queen bee
To be a teenage girl at the top of her game is to be in an exhausting and perpetual war for control, at least for the poised title character of filmmaker Tayarisha Poe’s intoxicating debut, “Selah and the Spades.” Heathers, move over: Meet Selah Summers, a 17-year-old Lady Macbeth who’s worked hard to claw her way to the highest rung on the social ladder and looks warily toward life after high school.
As a character study, “Selah and the Spades” is more than requiem for a mean girl. Think the stylistic snappiness of “Brick” meets the fastidious world-building of “Rushmore” with a fourth-wall-bending feminist perspective and two young black female leads, and you’ve got “Selah.” The Sundance discovery begins streaming Friday on Amazon, primed for audiences hungry for new voices and fresh talents.
Played with a dexterous duality by Lovie Simone (“Greenleaf”), Selah’s got good reason to stay on high alert. At a prestigious Pennsylvania boarding school where the student body is separated into five cliques each led by iron-fisted rulers, the popular and ruthless queen bee heads up both the cheer squad and the Spades, the campus “faction” that deals in illicit substances and is embroiled in a power struggle with the drama club Bobbies.
Along comes introverted new girl Paloma (Celeste O’Connor), a day student and budding photographer drawn out of her shell when Selah, deciding she should pass the torch, selects the sophomore as her protege. An intense bond forms, causing a rift in Selah’s BFF-ship with her oldest confidant and right-hand man, Maxxie (“Moonlight” and “When They See Us” star Jharrell Jerome), whose desires for a social life of his own put the Spades’ close-knit operation in jeopardy.
Drawing from the hard-boiled toughs of gangster noir tropes and the hopeful heroines of teen rom-coms, Poe’s unique alchemy weaves a world in which teenagers, left to their own devices in the relatively adult-free Haldwell School — run by a keen-eyed but hapless headmaster (Jesse Williams) — are hybrids of both genres. They’re callous and cruel, dreamy and carefree, swept up in the reveries, politics and melodrama of life at 17.
Although its narrative momentum occasionally sputters, “Selah” builds an intriguing social ecosystem peppered with colorful side characters like the oft-peeved Bobby (Ana Mulvoy-Ten), head of the Bobbies, and Tarit (Henry Hunter Hall), a savvy classmate of ambiguous allegiance who operates on the margins of the factions. They jump off the screen as the film’s plot careens toward the pivotal event in any teen movie: an all-consuming prom, where Shakespearean betrayals and buried histories bubble to the fore.
In her feature debut, “Selah and the Spades,” writer/director Tayarisha Poe immerses us in a heightened depiction of teenage politics.
Poe innately understands the intensities that fuel even platonic adolescent female friendships, lending richness and tenderness to the deepening dynamic between the two girls. But the filmmaker is far more interested in probing the complicated Selah than exploring the growth of an increasingly confident Paloma, who promises to be a very different kind of leader for the Spades than her mentor. Nuances of race and class inherent to the hyper-privileged school setting are similarly hinted at but not the focus.
Instead, Poe and cinematographer Jomo Fray, whose lensing bears an understated naturalism, probe Selah’s innermost anxieties and fears, creeping in from a distance to glimpse the quiet despair she hides from close friends and frenemies alike. As the real Selah comes into view through Paloma’s adoring eyes, their inner lives are accented beautifully by composer Aska Matsumiya’s discordant, jazzy and jangly score.
What’s behind Selah’s need to rule through fear, that tough exterior and the panic constantly bubbling beneath the surface? Scenes at home with her disapproving mother (Gina Torres) explain the pressure Selah carries and passes onto others and the desperation with which she clings to the social currency she’s accrued. But the showstopper comes early on in a cross-cutting, syncopated monologue she delivers upon meeting Paloma, in which Poe firmly plants the flag of her intent with flair and freshness of vision.
A short skirt, a choreographed dance, the fierceness of a gaze: Just a few small ways in which young women can claim some autonomy for themselves in a world trying to control their choices, their bodies and their every move, says Selah. She stares directly into the camera, a fire in her eyes, buoyed by oceans of confidence. “When you’re 17 you’ve got grab onto that control wherever you can and hold tight for dear life,” she says. “Because they always try and take it from you, don’t they?”
But as Selah comes to learn the hard way, it’s lonely at the top. The control she seeks comes at a cost. Poe’s parting gifts to her, then, are her Spades; and to the Selahs of the world, a promise of redemption and relief.
'Selah and the Spades'
Rating: R, for teen drug content and language
Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes
Playing: Available April 17 on Prime Video
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