Selah and The Spades (2019)
July 9, 2020 10:08 AM - Subscribe

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.

In the closed world of an elite Pennsylvania boarding school, Haldwell, the student body is run by five factions. Seventeen-year-old Selah Summers (Lovie Simone) runs the most dominant group, the Spades, with unshakable poise, as they cater to the most classic of vices and supply students with coveted, illegal alcohol and pills. Tensions between the factions escalate, and when Selah's best friend/right hand Maxxie (Moonlight's Jharrel Jerome) becomes distracted by a new love, Selah takes on a protégée, enamored sophomore Palo-ma (Celeste O'Connor), to whom she imparts her wisdom on ruling the school. But with graduation looming and Paloma proving an impressively quick study, Selah's fears turn sinister as she grapples with losing the control by which she defines herself.

Charlotte O'Sullivan: Last month, teen icon Billie Eilish said she was sick of being judged on her body and how she dressed. She would surely love this experimental, spiky drama, which is dominated by a 17-year-old, Selah (newcomer Lovie Simone), who complains that girls her age are always being told how to “wear” their “skin”.

What’s so smart about first-time director-writer Tayarisha Poe (who began work on this Amazon Original project five years ago, when she was 25), is that she acknowledges the greediness of the world’s gaze, while finding a way to flip it. At several points, Selah stares into the camera. She’s got her eye on us. She knows we’re watching.

Natalia Keogan: But comparing the teen anti-heroes to the likes of Tony Soprano and Henry Hill ignores what is at the crux of Selah and the Spades: not the struggle to maintain power, but the burning desire to have any power at all. At the end of the day, these characters have to answer to someone, whether it is their parents—who in Selah’s case completely control her future collegiate prospects—or the headmaster, who can end their education at Haldwell at the first sniff of trouble. . .
What distinguishes Selah from other teen-centered media such as Euphoria or Riverdale is a careful reluctance to sensationalize or mythologize the teen experience. Poe’s steady hand keeps the balance between realistic teen drama and the crime genre, allowing its examination of melodrama surrounding betrayal, rule-breaking and power-grabs to breathe true."

Alison Willmore: Selah and the Spades is a welcome entry to the canon of films about high school as a battleground, one that stretches from the satirically anthropological stylings of Mean Girls to the supernaturally enhanced dramas of The Craft (the upcoming remake of which will star Simone). While its tony Pennsylvania prep school setting might bring to mind other rich-kid chronicles like Cruel Intentions, the film is closer in tone and spirit to Rian Johnson’s 2005 neo-noir Brick. Poe doesn’t superimpose hardboiled traditions over its teenage machinations the way Johnson does, but she treats her kiddie crime families with the same unironic seriousness her characters do. It’s not a mobster movie as told with prep school kids — it’s more like a movie intent on pointing out that mobsters are just teenagers who’ve grown up. The disloyal are excommunicated, the traitorous beaten. The first time newcomer Paloma (Celeste O’Connor) comes back from acting as an enforcer, her knuckles are bloody. “I didn’t realize it would hurt this bad,” she tells Selah, as exhilarated as she is shocked.

posted by Carillon (1 comment total)
I really ended up loving this, some of the reviews I read said that the balance between style and plot slipped for them, but that never really happened to me. Selah is such a fascinating character and the supporting cast was able to bring a lot of character with small touches.
posted by Carillon at 9:35 PM on July 9, 2020

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