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Selah and the Spades (A Movie Review)

Updated: Apr 22, 2020


Starring Lovie Simone, Celeste O'Connor, Jharrel Jerome, Gina Torres, Jesse Williams, Ana Mulvoy Ten, Benjamin Breault, Evan Roe, Cody Sloan, Rae Bell, Nekhebet Kum Juch, Francesca Noel, Henry Hunter Hall, Krish Bhuva, Greyson Cage, Ali Fisher, Melissa McMeekin and Kenneth Israel.

Screenplay by Tayarisha Poe.

Directed by Tayarisha Poe.

Distributed by Amazon Studios. 97 minutes. Not Rated.

Attention Philly! April 17th marks the Amazon Prime Video premiere of Selah and The Spades – the directorial debut for West Philly writer and director Tayarisha Poe. While filmed in Massachusetts, the story is set in a posh suburban Philly boarding school with references to Fishtown (with a warning… don’t go to Fishtown alone).

Right from the artful start, we are introduced to the five “factions” of Haldwell, that together, with mob-like synchronicity, manage the needs of the student body: gambling on sports, after hours parties, and the illegal substances that support these events, to name a few. These cliques have names like “The Bobbies,” “The Skins,” and “The Spades.” The rule that none of them break? Don’t be a rat…. or suffer the consequences.

Selah Summers (played by Lovie Simone) is the leader of “The Spades” and the film quickly lets you know, this is Selah’s story. As we quickly find out, she wouldn’t have it any other way. Selah is high school elite. She is the head of spirit squad, keeps her grades up, and runs the drug and alcohol distribution ring at Haldwell. She maintains a tight veneer of control trying to keep all of her high school and family stressors together, and throughout the film you are just waiting to see her crack… again.

Selah is looking for her replacement as head of The Spades when she graduates, and going with her gut, she chooses new day student Paloma Davis (played by Celeste O’Connor). Paloma is a talented photographer who instantly becomes captivated by Selah – her strength, self-awareness, and power. When Selah’s right-hand man Maxxie (played by Jharrel Jerome) proves himself to be distracted from his role, Selah turns to Paloma to fill his place, with all the nasty jobs that come with that role.

Both Selah and Paloma are portrayed with individual strength that feels interesting right now. Selah’s monologue about being female and 17 is masterful – a monologue that I can see theater students using as an audition piece for years to come. Paloma is written with an inner strength that you often don’t see in supporting characters, particularly teens.

This is a good time for me to mention that once again (see my review of Thoroughbreds) as the mom of a teen who has spent time at boarding high school, the dark portrayal of boarding life (so unsupervised, so many drugs, so much bullying) is discouraging. I have little need to hear the stories of the privileged elite, particularly in teenage form. Yet, like in Heathers, Gossip Girl, and Thoroughbreds, the characters become a guilty pleasure to watch. You know eventually karma will win out in some way or another and it doesn’t make you feel too bad when it does.

Grey’s Anatomy fans – Jesse Williams plays Haldwell’s new Headmaster and while his role is low impact and always two steps behind his students, it is nice to see him back on the screen.

Interestingly, as I watched through the credits, I found that Selah and The Spades was created as part of the Sundance Institute Feature Film Program Creative Producing Fellowship – a yearlong program designed to nurture emerging producers with project-specific support. It shows. This is a polished first film, with beautiful cinematography, frequently smart screenplay, and intriguing soundtrack.

If the characters were more likable (which they are NOT supposed to be), it would have been a more enjoyable film to watch. While I am glad I watched Selah and The Spades, I don’t suspect I will be hitting go again anytime soon.

And once again, since we’re all stuck at home looking for entertainment options, Selah and the Spades is available to watch today, April 17th, on Amazon Prime.

Bonnie Paul

Copyright ©2020 All rights reserved. Posted: April 14, 2020.

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