Written & Directed by Tayarisha Poe
USA/ 2019/ 97 mins
Whether you’re a prefect, a drama bobby, or a ‘skin’, everyone struggles to find a place at school and, if cinema is to be believed, especially in America. Set against the soft, rolling green mounds of a Pennsylvania boarding school, Selah and the Spades attempts to decipher the inner workings of student hierarchy through Selah, a graduating seventeen-year-old, under her mother’s scorn and the weight of the school’s underground activities as the leader of the Spades. Could someone maintain the Spades’ influence after she leaves, or will one faction or another assert dominance?
Things don’t start well, with shoddy camera work attempting to emulate intricate angles, resulting in awkward shots cutting off characters and leaving vast empty frames. Cliques within the school dynamic is an age-old trope. Utilising this correctly can result in culturally significant movies. Do it wrong, and you end up with tepid, unfocused, and pale imitations of those movies. Selah and The Spades itself falls into the latter category.
Leader of the Spades and de facto controller of the student body, Selah is thoroughly unlikeable – still not a great start. Tayarisha Poe’s script talks of the importance of passing the torch, and the weight placed on Selah’s shoulders, but we don’t experience this gravity. Her ‘pushy’ mother is a one-note role from Gina Torres, with a monotone delivery; but this is likely out of directional choice and not performance. In only one direct instance, where Selah speaks directly to the audience (in another of Jomo Fray‘s peculiar designs in the cinematography), are the expectations placed on young women addressed. How men want them to look ‘impossible’, and how the faculty wish to control their bodies. A sensational, true, and persistent issue, but this isn’t demonstrated in the film. Lovie Simone and others are capable performers, but the characters have zero accountability or problems with authority, regularly wearing whatever they please, doing whatever they want, and suffering zero consequences, causing a detachment from the audience to these characters.
The exception is Celeste O’Connor. While performances range from deadpan to noticeably lacking and seldom engaging, O’Connor’s place as the new blood, the potential successor, and Selah’s new plaything is the audience’s way into the story. Unsure of what precisely is going on, but with chemistry with Simone, O’Connor has an authentic presence, a likeability, and tenderness which, when pushed, makes for the only significantly genuine arc across the film.
Complaining of a lack in control, but seemingly answering to no one regarding Selah’s extensive drug trafficking and manipulation, Poe’s script is a hot mess of ideas that smash into one another. Had the narrative attempted to expand this psychological power play to maintain the only control Selah possesses, Selah and the Spades may have stepped forward as an exceptionally detailed account of a young woman projecting her lack of control onto the outside world. Instead, with the peculiar choices to downplay violent or potentially gritty aspects in catering to a teen-drama, Poe waters down her script to an unengaging level.
This lack of direction skewers the film at various intervals, entirely uncomfortable with sticking to the confines of one or two storytelling mechanics. The cinematography is uncomfortable, unable to settle on a shop, focusing attention away from point of action. Aesthetically, the film has some design, but poor lighting casts characters in blocking shadows, which removes the ability to gauge expression. Poe’s writing has nuances of an adroit script, weaving sexuality and even aspects of asexual nature surprisingly delicately into the backgrounds. These aspects mean Selah and the Spades has wasted potential; a coming-of-age narrative with no one at the helm to charter the course, causing the focus to drift all over the place.
Available to stream on Amazon Prime now
Review originally published for The Wee Review: https://theweereview.com/review/selah-and-the-spades/