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:

Mickey and the Bear – Review

Wirrten & Directed by Annabelle Attanasio

The prospect of forging one’s path at the cost of leaving others behind is certainly far from an original narrative for the coming-of-age drama. For first-time writer & director Annabelle Attanasio however, what she achieves with Mickey and the Bear is a heart-wrenching, visceral piece on the pursuit of personal gratification, while attempting to balance perceived family obligation, as fiercely headstrong Michaela (Mickey) is the sole provider and carer for her addict, veteran father Hank.

A gifted young woman, Mickey is wholly a likeable, well-rounded character, without stripping an ounce of her humanity. She has flaws, she has emotions and her limits. Almost as if this coming-of-age narrative was written by a woman, for a woman. Camila Morrone’s method of characterisation is subdued, though sharing her on-screen father’s temper on occasion.

Mickey has pride, becoming aggressive at those taking pity or offering money. Desperately, she desires a further connection to her mother, to freedom, and finds this in the opportunity to study in a new state. What makes Attanasio’s film though is just how clear the affection between Mickey and Hank feels, in no small part with the writing, but everything is down to performance. Morrone establishes clear relationships with the men in the film, sharing genuine father-daughter chemistry with James Badge Dale, and light-hearted passionate moments with Calvin Demba’s Wyatt.

The only mediocre performance, down to the theme of the role rather than performance, is that of Mickey’s boyfriend Aron, played by Ben Rosenfield. His part in the narrative is clear, the representation of what her life will be, if Mickey stays. He’s a younger version of her father, encapsulating the rejection of potential, and a future of marriage, kids and ‘cleaning up his shit’. Aron is a pill-popper, disrespectful and physically driven, again though, this isn’t as simple as it may sound – Aron isn’t a vicious monster, he’s immature and discourteous. Symbolic conditioning of what the real beasts of Mickey’s life are, there’s only one instance of hunting bear in this film, and its deceptive placement in the story is a sublime piece of cinematic storytelling.

And, if the titular ‘bear’ allegory is lost on viewers, the film couldn’t be at fault, with Hank’s looming presence, at a moment’s notice aggressive, weaving throughout. With only one instance of hunting in the film, the beat of the wilderness is not the grizzly of the north, nor the taxidermy she works with, no, the beast of Mickey’s life is the man she shares a home with – and the underestimated experiences her father Hank has gone through.

The erroneous methods of black-and-white character development of Melodrama are vacant in Mickey and the Bear, instead, a focus is on the earthy tones of life. The palette is blurred, nothing vibrant and all the while coated in a dusty haze. As with its characters, this choice in lighting reflects that no-one is straight forward, there are no clear antagonists, even in the tactless boys who push Mickey for satisfaction, nor the father who could easily tip into an abusive scale. These are all fleshed out (excluding Aron) roles, with levels of understanding to their motivation, a key for audiences to fall behind a character.

Chiefly, Hank, Mickey’s father, and the true bear in her life. A veteran of Iraq, we do not require context to the trials Hank would face while serving. All the audience requires is the foreknowledge of his time on duty, his drug and substance dependency and the issues of struggling lucidity with growing delusion. He is playful, charismatic, and does genuinely have care for Mickey when he is sober. There is malice in our attitudes towards him, but more pity as he struggles with an intense addiction and displays uglier characteristics, namely virulent toxic masculinity when his life is saved by Mickey’s new love-interest Wyatt, a young black English student. No words of racism are uttered, but Dale’s performance and the film’s framing as to his expression communicate enough to the audience to show his discomfort.

Culminating in a distressing build to the film’s closing, the running technique of claustrophobic shots builds to a pay-off as the audience feels suffocated. A short scene, the costume design, performances and lighting are enough to lay out every connection to be made, without spelling it to the audience and ruining the impact. Attanasio’s canny writing ability here, as with Morrone and Dale’s performance, demonstrates that reason is never an acceptable excuse. We understand why Hank is like this, but the film never excuses his manner, and in the end, it forces Mickey’s decision on whether to support Hank, or to run.

Thankfully, in the interest of narrative tone and taste, these bleaker, though no less authentic moments stop short of gratuitous. They serve precisely the purpose intended, without drawing insulting lines for the audience. Meticulously well thought out and constructed, everything has layer and context, it’s a masterclass in understanding the human condition beneath the superficial, not only from a written level but from sturdy performances.

Nothing is overworked or suffers heavily from melodrama, a rare coming-of-age narrative for a woman, without the copious misunderstandings male directors impose. Everything feels natural, never fussy, but messy in a way only life can manage. Mickey and the Bear condenses such emotion into a ninety-minute runtime, without feeling too short or overarching, it’s a compacted, impressive piece of filmmaking which excels in its execution, performances and design.

Review originally pubished for In Their Own League: