“Selah and the Spades”, which was released on Amazon Prime in last weekend, is a little distinctive debut work which may be regarded as the starting point of a major talent to watch. As a guy who did not have much problem with being a solitary oddball during high school years, I simply observed its adolescent school drama and characters with mild interest and fascination, but I also sensed a strong artistic voice to be blossomed more, and I certainly appreciated several impressive moments in the film.
At the beginning, we are introduced to Selah Summers (Lovie Simone) and a little enclosed world she has been dominating over. She is a senior student of some prestigious prep school outside Philadelphia, and we get informed a bit on several underground factions including the one she has led. Each of these factions has clandestinely provided each own illegal services and activities to the student body, and Selah’s faction, which is called the Spades, has been the most powerful one in the bunch as dealing with various types of drugs for study or recreation.
During the early part of the film, we see how things get done in this little power system. Selah and her right-hand guy Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome) routinely meet the leaders of the other factions at a remote isolated spot in the middle of the nearby forest outside the school, and she is always the one who is going to make decisions on their latest agendas ranging from inter-faction dealings to the latest prank to cause another headache for the headmaster and other teachers of the school.
Selah and her criminal associates are quite serious about what they have been doing behind their backs, and we come to gather that their criminal activities are originated from a mix of defiance and need for mental ventilation. Going through those rigid education courses in the school, they and many other students often feel quite burdened and pressured as expected to move up to those prestigious colleges someday, and they certainly feel better when they happen to get an opportunity to hold an unauthorized night party filled with music, lights, and, probably, drug and booze.
Feeling far more pressure than before as entering the spring semester of her senior year, Selah also comes to discern that she will have to find someone suitable to lead the Spades after her graduation, and then she encounters a female junior student named Paloma (Celeste O’Connor), who recently gets enrolled in the school and then is assigned to the position of a school newsletter reporter. On one day, Paloma happens to do some reporting job on the school cheerleading team, and, as the leader of the school cheerleading team, Selah is willing to tell and show her more than required via a striking moment mainly consisting of sharp comments and precise physical movements.
As Selah boldly wields her pluck and confidence as your average queen bee, Paloma is surely impressed a lot, and Selah promptly takes Paloma under her wings and then shows the ropes to Paloma, who, not so surprisingly, turns out to be a quick learner. As she and Selah spend more time together, Selah comes to trust and like her more, and that certainly affects her relationship with Maxxie, who turns out to have been rather sloppy in handling and protecting the business interest of their faction.
However, as Paloma becomes more confident than before, Selah becomes insecure and nervous just because she feels like replaced gradually by her protégé. As a matter of fact, it is later revealed that Paloma is actually not the first student to be considered as Selah’s future successor, and Selah finds herself driven more by her nasty sides – especially after Paloma impresses the leaders of the other factions as proposing the clever solution to a certain big trouble to the student body.
While surely reminiscent of many other adolescent school drama and comedy films ranging from “Rushmore” (1998) to “Mean Girls” (2004), the movie sticks to its own dry but stylish tone under the competent direction of director/writer/co-producer Tayarisha Poe, and her screenplay firmly pushes its story and characters to the inevitable arrival point where Selah comes to face the serious consequence of her impulsive actions. In my humble opinion, the movie steps back a bit in the last minute, but, at least, we can clearly see that Selah gets one hell of lesson in the end, which she will probably keep to her heart as growing up more.
As the center of the movie, Lovie Simone is terrific especially when her performance subtly conveys to us Selah’s vulnerability and insecurity behind her seemingly confident façade, and she and Celeste O’Connor are flawless in the dynamic relationship development between their characters along the story. In case of the other main cast members, Jharrel Jerome, who has steadily advanced since his breakthrough supporting turn in “Moonlight” (2016), and Ana Mulvoy-Ten are effective as the small but crucial parts of the story, and Gina Torres and Jesse Williams are also fine as two substantial adult characters in the film.
On the whole, “Selah and The Spades” may be a little too dry for you if you expect something as uproarious as “Mean Girls”, but its good moments will linger on your mind for a while, and Poe surely shows considerable promise here although she previously made only one short film. The overall achievement may look modest, but she did impress me enough, and it will be interesting to see what she will do next.