They always try to break you down when you are a teen. Well, prepare yourself, because high school is a war between literal factions in Selah and the Spades, which arrived on Prime Video on Friday, April 17th, 2020 thanks to Amazon Studios.
There’s an intense power struggle happening at the prestigious Haldwell School, much in thanks to the five major groups that run the campus: The Sea, run by Tarit (Henry Hunter Hall: Harriet 2019, Hunters series); The Skins, led by Amber (Francesca Noel: Then Came You 2018, Star People short 2018); The Bobbies, headed by Bobby (Ana Mulvoy Ten: House of Anubis series, American Crime series); The Prefects, run by Two Tom (Evan Roe: Time Toys 2016, Madam Secretary series); and The Spades, who answer to Selah (Lovie Simone: Orange is the New Black series, Greenleaf series). While this might be ‘just’ high school, they take their roles extremely seriously.
Entering into this brave new world on the first day of spring semester, new underclassman Paloma (Celeste O’Connor: Irreplaceable You 2018, Wetlands 2019) finds herself immediately drawn to the passionate Selah and her sidekick Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome: Moonlight 2016, Mr. Mercedes series). To align yourself with such a high-profile faction is to choose sides in a war that has been raging for years. Can Paloma and Selah trust one another, or does there always have to be an enemy?
Clocking in at 97 minutes, Selah and the Spades was written and directed by the exceptional Tayarisha Poe (Honey and Trombones short 2012, Two Sentence Horror Stories series), who makes her impressive feature debut with the film. Additionally, the movie includes the acting talents of Jesse Williams (Cabin in the Woods 2011, Grey’s Anatomy series), Nekhebet Kum Juch (Infinitely Polar Bear 2014, Before Mars short 2016), Gina Torres (Serenity 2005, Suits series), and more.
Teen films have a long and diverse history, one that includes such highlights as 1985’s The Breakfast Club, 1995’s Clueless, and 2004’s Mean Girls. Though there were often lessons to be learned amid these high school hijinks, let’s be honest, the characters were largely the same: bored, affluent white teens trying to find solidarity, shop for the latest fashions, and/or avoid bullying. The new Drama Selah and the Spades intends to wipe the slate clean by providing an engaging, intelligent, multi-faceted queen bee who is neither superhero nor villain, definitely not a basket-case but perhaps a bit of a mean girl. Oh yeah, and she’s not white.
Breaking down boundaries and flipping the script, Selah and the Spades utilizes an exceptionally talented and inclusive cast to create what is bound to be the next addition to the list of great Teen films—and this one is actually smart. Much like in life, especially high school, no character is clearly defined, and they (mostly) all partake in the push and pull for control that defines the teenage years. There are young women fighting to take back control from society and their parents; students intent upon building legacies; individuals who are compensating for external forces wreaking havoc on their futures; and those that struggle with ‘simpler’ issues, such as whom to trust. Acceptance, control, power, sexism, and more find their way into a wonderfully written script.
In the titular role, Simone is utterly flawless. Relaying the sophisticated poise of her mature 17-year-old character, along with the fight for control and the struggle to balance her legacy with her friendships, Simone provides a phenomenal performance that shows that she is a young woman who is headed straight to the top. Her sharp delivery of feminist ideologies (“The school tells you to cover your legs, cover your shoulders, because they can’t tell boys to keep it in their pants”) in a scene that feels somewhat like a music video, her ability to soften her entire body language to display Selah’s inner, personal struggles, along with her sass, all couple together to make a character who is likable, despite her obvious flaws.
O’Connor is equally exceptional in her portrayal of the more relaxed Paloma. A photographer and scholarship student, Paloma is a representation of a carefree soul, one who mesmerizes her new friend just by being able to float about without a constant weight on her shoulders. In this, O’Connor is able to bring to life a student who can easily cross cliques, a congenial young woman who simply seems to enjoy the experience—whatever it might be. Together, Simone and O’Connor have an organic chemistry that makes them fully believable as fast friends, and both splendidly portray their different yet equally intelligent characters.
And while Williams’ portrayal of Headmaster Banton should not be overlooked, Selah and the Spades is all about its leading ladies—Simone, O’Connor, and Poe. Through the use of a wonderful soundtrack and score, stunning cinematography from Jomo Fray (Port Authority 2019, No Future 2020), and a focus on all things artistic, Poe and her crew take the Teen Drama and elevate it to the next level throughout every single frame of the film.
There are no easy answers here; instead, this is a film that tackles everything from taking back control of your body to trust and frenemies to the self-defined hierarchy at work in high schools across the world. Throughout, there’s an intensity to the depiction of school life that reminds adults that, sometimes, our teenage social lives border on gang membership. By shedding a light on these formative years with grace and intellect, taking the uncertainty of seventeen and making it regal, Poe places herself into the position of being a poet laureate for Generation Z. For this, Cryptic Rock gives Selah and the Spades 5 of 5 stars.