Selah and the Spades – Amazon Prime

Written & Directed by Tayarisha Poe

USA/ 2019/ 97 mins

Rating: 2 out of 5.

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/

Armour: A Herstory of the Scottish Bard

Book, Music & Lyrics: Shonagh Murray

Featuring works by Robert Burns

Girls sent away from their Fathers, widows sitting in the shadows of their husbands and a mistress hiding her adoration, knowing to reveal her history would ruin her – there is little wonder women fashion themselves an armour. Rabbie Burns, epitome of lyrical writing, was known to enjoy the odd lady or two. How much do you know of him outside of your school days? Better still, how much do you know about his wife Jean, and the time she sat with his Mistress Nancy for tea.

Taken from the account of Robert Burn’s granddaughter Sarah, Armour sheds light on the effects of his life after his passing. Shonagh Murray’s script captures a tremendously warming essence of Scottish history. The script adds an air of distinguished elegance to the piece while the musical numbers are poetic and memorable. There are no cop-outs with pastiche tunes, each one is originally engaging, capturing the tone of the production strikingly.

Placing trust in their sentimentality, without reliance in pander, the all-female production craft a beautifully poetic musical, underscoring a staunch feminist message. The impact of these women, crucial characters in the lives of talented men, is a story seldom told. The story of Jean Armour, the bards wife, a woman he would return to no matter the affairs, liaisons and letters to others, does not disappoint.

These roses, as delicate as their period dress may convey, are thorny in temperament. All of the cast carry their multiple parts to fruition, in particular Burn’s wife. Armour bares their flesh, opening up the soft, quivering underbelly of uncertainty and struggles of the times.

Instead of; behind every man, there is a great woman”, perhaps “behind every man, are a few tremendous women”. If that be the case, this production is a cauldron of potential, ringing of cultural splendour and hearth. Slip on your soft, dancing shoes and bask in the glory of these women, who loved, respected and tolerated ‘the bastard’ Burns.

Myra Dubois: Dead Funny – Underbelly Bristo Square

Myra DuBois – the quadruple threat star of film, television and stage – is dead. Thank god. The world just wasn’t ready for this talent, incapable of holding itself to the high calibre Myra would expect. And so, we gather in the presence of friends, fans and total strangers to pay our respects as DuBois conducts her own funeral. Who else could do her justice?

At any Fringe show you will hear one sentence above all else: ‘Fill from the front please‘. That’s the danger zone, especially for a drag act, but Dubois’ AdMyras scramble in for their masochistic fix. With dignity, cruelty, an ounce of contempt and a restraining order, Myra can handle her crowd.

Dubois’ control, timing, and snap judgements as to who will play along are exquisite. This is someone who knows their craft, understands precisely what they can and cannot pull off, and when to dial the level up a few notches. Returning to the Fringe, she may be inside a shipping container, but this is easily her most well-constructed show to date. Song, dance, wit and a few dark moments come together. It seems there is nothing this woman cannot do, except die gracefully, or hit every note…

Diana was the people’s Princess; well, Myra is the people’s Queen. Dubois, a triumphant example of British Drag, balances the old-school grit of the artform while injecting it with rejuvenated venom.

Review originally published for The Skinny: https://www.theskinny.co.uk/festivals/edinburgh-fringe/theatre/myra-dubois-dead-funny

Photo Credit – Holly Revell