Travis Leamons // Film Critic
SELAH AND THE SPADES
To those Jets and Sharks up on the west side, this is a different kind of story.
There’s an invisible demarcation line that exists when it comes to teenage movies — those before John Hughes, and those that come after. For a short period in the 1980s, Hughes was able to beautifully capture the essence of the American teen with films like THE BREAKFAST CLUB, SIXTEEN CANDLES, PRETTY IN PINK, and FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF. Let me rephrase: the essence of the caucasian teen. Minorities and persons of color were seemingly excluded, the filmmakers and casting directors colorblind to have them occupy significant roles in major Hollywood releases, save maybe STAND AND DELIVER and LEAN ON ME, both of which are fact-based films.
The 1990s and early 2000s proved a better period for coming-of-age stories involving black people with BOYZ N THE HOOD, THE INKWELL, THE WOOD, and LOVE AND BASKETBALL.
Generational gaps, adolescent development, and different experiences have allowed for fresh takes on teenage life. Some superficial and full of hijinks, repeating such endgames as losing one’s virginity before graduation. Others with darker themes and tones, its characters, dealing drugs and committing murder before homeroom rolls around.
Amazon Studios’ SELAH AND THE SPADES doesn’t adhere to the John Hughes makeup of its student body. Social cliques are represented, though they aren’t geeks or jocks or the cool kids. The student body at the Haldwell boarding school is divided into five factions: the Spades, the Sea, the Skins, the Bobbies, and the Prefects.
The Spades are the most powerful, led by 17-year-old Selah (newcomer Lovie Simone), senior captain of the cheerleading squad. When she isn’t doing flips, cartwheels, and twirls, she’s dealing in Adderall, coke, and other narcotics. A risky business, not unlike Tom Cruise dealing in human fulfillment with his parents out of town. If a formal education doesn’t work out for Selah, she at least can ace the entrance exam to Mob University. Obsessed with perfection, this high school hustle is just a means to mask her insecurities.
Those wanting to muscle in and trump the Spades, you best watch it.
Enter Paloma (Celeste O’Connor, another newcomer). She’s a sophomore new to Haldwell. They meet during the spirit squad practice: Selah front and center, braided hair. Paloma out of the picture, hair frizzed, her eyes behind a camera taking photos of the girls in action. Selah sees potential, an understudy to teach, and mold. It would have been Maxxie (Emmy winner Jharrel Jerome), her chief lieutenant, but he fell for the tender trap of love and is getting sloppy in how he handles the Spades’ accounting ledger.
Selah refrains from romance. Just another way to keep control of her interests. But as a senior, what is to become of her operation after she leaves Haldwell? It’s not like she can take her entire drugstore home in a toiletry bag, nestled alongside moisturizers and conditioners. Paloma looks to be her successor until Selah finds the ingénue’s entrepreneurial ambition to be a little premature.
The insular environment of a boarding school offers a setting we rarely have seen involving persons of color. First-time feature director Tayarisha Poe presents a story about drive, ambition, and insecurity, but doesn’t quite know how or when to stop. Rumblings of an Amazon TV series spin-off make sense as SELAH AND THE SPADES feels like the starting point of what becomes of a school faction when the leader moves on, and another is ready to take over.
For SELAH, Poe takes her experiences from attending Swarthmore College, a private liberal arts academy in Pennsylvania, and presents a story that swaps the Corleones for high school seniors that reflect what she sees in a mirror. But the results are mixed in terms of character. Paloma is at first a voyeur to those around her – most appropriate since she wields a camera everywhere she goes. Then she comes close to being Eve Harrington, a character from a film that Generation Y likely won’t find easily to stream online. Selah, however, is the bigger personality-driven to perfection by an overbearing mother (Gina Torres in a great one scene appearance). Selah could have been punched up a bit, but we get the general idea of her struggles and the volatility that is teenage life.
By focusing on the kids typically left in the background (or out of the frame altogether) in teenage movies, Poe presents a clique similar to her own. She’s not out to make Haldwell be an odd, super diverse prep school. But the change in gender and ethnicity is worth applauding – as are the little peculiarities of teens resorting to outmoded means of communication, like dropping off notes during class instead of sending text messages. That bit of novelty sent me way back. I was half expecting someone to bust out Fortune Teller to decide a course of action.
SELAH AND THE SPADES has a distinct style and look that help overshadow the narrative hiccups. Jomo Fray’s photography and framing are marvelous (Selah and Paloma squabbling in the school’s amphitheater, in particular). Incredible that this his first feature film along with Tayarisha Poe. Both lead actresses, Lovie Simone and Celeste O’Connor, are impressive in their debuts as well, and we’ll likely be seeing more from them in the future. All this lamenting of firsts makes it easy to forgive its story shortfalls.
SELAH falls in line with HEATHERS and DEAR WHITE PEOPLE, with little touches of THE GODFATHER and ALL ABOUT EVE. That’s some good company.
Watch SELAH AND THE SPADES today on Amazon Prime.