Written by: Matt Patti | April 16th, 2020
Selah and the Spades (Tayarisha Poe, 2019) 2½ out of 4 Stars.
Less than a year removed from college, most of my greatest memories reside in higher education. Those four years at university were perhaps the greatest of my life, yet I still have some fond memories of my my high-school days, as well. It was a time of little responsibility, much opportunity, good friends, and engaging experiences, but not quite as engaging as college. I look back on my high-school years as relaxing, sturdy and fulfilling, with some small problems that seem so miniscule compared to the stress of adult life.
Therefore, I was expecting Selah and the Spades to act as a nice shot of nostalgia harkening back to simpler times. I expected common clichés of high school life: awkward dating/relationships, struggles with coursework/professors, rebelling against parents, aspiring to be popular, etc. However, Selah and the Spades has none of that. This R-rated high-school drama is a very different kind of animal, focusing on the darker side of boarding-school life, and while I didn’t get the nostalgia I was expecting, I was intrigued by the very different characters and the foreign (to me) world in which the film takes place.
Selah and the Spades takes place at the prestigious Haldwell Boarding School in Pennsylvania, where five factions run the dirty underground life of the school. One faction is responsible for organizing parties, another for offering cheating solutions for coursework, and others offering similar shady services. The most powerful group – The Spades – sells illegal alcohol and pills to the student body. In the film, we follow the leader of the Spades, Selah (Lovie Simone), a senior in search of a successor to take over the Spades throne after she graduates. Selah leads her group with great poise and an iron fist. She is highly intelligent and strategic, respected by many and feared by some. Can Selah find an appropriate heir, and if she does, will she be ready to give up her power?
Writer/director Tayarisha Poe does a great job of creating unique, interesting characters that are different than most high-schoolers. Everyone seems so cold and calculated that it feels like you’re watching rival gangs or mobsters go at it rather than teens. Selah is the most interesting character. She is unlike any other high-school girl. She doesn’t care about boys, sex, relationships, or who to take to prom. All she cares about is maintaining her faction’s status at the top of the school and maintaining her power as the leader of the Spades. Lovie Simone’s performance is gripping, with the audience never knowing whether to trust Selah as a friend or fear her cunningness. All the cast’s performances are grounded, real, and somehow very believable for young people playing such adult-like characters.
The technical aspects in the film caught me off guard, as there are some very interesting editing choices, some great shots, and a very fitting soundtrack that helps establish the mood. The writing is very good, as well, with interesting metaphors throughout and clever dialogue between characters. Unfortunately, even though the writing and dialogue are quite good, the story itself feels lacking, overall. Many important events are skimmed over in favor of more long, drawn-out dialogue scenes. The film drags a bit. at points, and for a film that’s rated R the director could’ve chosen to show and do much more. The other factions are interesting, but for some reason aren’t shown very much at all. Selah and the Spades is Selah’s movie, no doubt, but it would be more interesting to see more of these other factions and this corrupted underground world of Haldwell.
Overall, even though it could be so much more, Selah and the Spades is a breath of fresh air when it comes to high-school dramas. The world of Haldwell is a unique one that I wish viewers could see more of. However, Selah’s character does carry the film for the most part and is the subject of much intrigue. Missed opportunities aside, Selah and the Spades offers a small look into the life of a unique and interesting character and the difficult decisions she must make. I would recommend it for someone looking for something different beyond the same old clichés.