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/

Corpus Christi – Edinburgh Filmhouse

Directed by Jan Komasa

Written by Mateusz Pacewicz

Taking inspiration from real events, Corpus Christi, named after the Christian feast the film builds towards, centres around the spiritual awakening Daniel receives while serving time in a Polish detention centre for youths. Upon release, Daniel wishes to repent; in search of absolution, he desires to become a priest but is unable to do so due to his criminal record. Unwilling to work in a sawmill for the rest of his days and stumbling upon a chance encounter with an ailing vicar, Daniel takes on the name of the prison chaplain, performing sacramental rights in the vicar’s absence and he begins to find a sense of forgiveness in a village suffering from a tragedy.

As fragile and unsettling as he is charming, Bartosz Bielenia carries Corpus Christi, there is no question about this. Side characters play their part, but all receive a lift in scenes they share with Bielenia. Closer to the start of his career than the end, Bielenia commands a measure of emotions which is enviable to even seasoned experts. Using a concoction of troubled confusion, anxiety and lashings of aggression, he still achieves Pacewichz’s humour in the script in a natural way with co-star Eliza Rycembel.

The film is a rare piece which communicates much by saying little; few issues are drawn out or laid bare to the audience. The symbolic struggle of political over religious influence or power is not spelt out, but rather proffered up for our interpretation. A crucial idea is that no matter the influence office possesses, only one form of authority can force the other to, quite literally, bend the knee. Power-play, particularly masculine, is intrinsic to the plotline. In recognising Daniel’s influence over the community, Leszek Lichota’s Mayor of the town gives a subdued performance, resonating with Komasa’s stringent realism in direction. There are multiple opportunities for melodrama, for exaggeration and outright antagonists, but thankfully we never fall into these pitfalls.

With reverence, even while acknowledging the declining faith in Europe and that many churchgoers do so out of habit rather than belief, Mateusz Pacewichz’s script refrains from petty jabs at religion. Instead, it allows commentary of the church’s apparent confusion over redemption, confession and forgiveness. Sexton for the vicarage – Aleksandra Konieczna as Lidia – is the representative of the judgement which dictates these communities, with a sense of self-conflicting authority, which hinders future generations’ opportunities to grow in this brutal coming-of-age drama.

Corpus Christi is a quiet film, unafraid of holding both the moment and indeed the shot. It paces itself to the beat of the audience’s breath, stilling in the poignant moments of death or reflection, with cuts occurring in quick succession via the introduction of club-anthems, drug abuse and strobe lighting. Piotr Sobocinski Jr’s cinematography works, but struggles to find a reflective vision for the film, unsure of how to stylise the aesthetic. In aiming for realism, the film has choice moments of spectacle, usually at the hand of effects, lighting or performance, rather than editing or camera work. There’s a blur, which complements interior shots of smoke or incense, but one can’t help feel the hollow coldness of the blues and greys aren’t being used to full effect, excluding, of course, an uncomfortably brutal climax.

Viscerally, the conclusion absconds from the perverse silence which has set the pace before it. A gut-punch, this finale is a shattering of the illusory happy ending, a reminder of the film’s subcutaneous message that the young are the ones paying for the attitudes of established communities. Following his previous feature film Warsaw 44, Corpus Christi is principal evidence of Jan Komasa’s spectacular ability as a filmmaker, in and outside of Poland. The elements are there, and further collaboration with Bartosz Bielenia is hopefully on the cards as the two evolve together.

Review originally published for The Wee Review: https://theweereview.com/review/corpus-christi/

Too Late To Die Young – Filmhouse, Edinburgh

Writer & Director – Dominga Sotomayor

Chile Brazil Argentina Netherlands Qatar/ 2018/ 110 mins

Dominga Sotomayor Castillo has a penchant for producing cinema which places family experiences at its core. She examines the dynamics between generations, without putting dependence on melodrama. Nature is a common theme, particularly with her 2013 film La Isla, how freeing yet choking isolation can be. In her new cinematic venture, Too Late To Die Young, we see a continuance of this dynamic. It is not outside forces or manipulated pathos which piques our interest, but slow character study and warming aesthetics.

While we have multiple characters with dynamics between families, friends and lovers – we focus on Demian Hernández as Sofía. Angsty, brooding and chain-smoking, Sofia might have been the typical teenager seeking a life in the city. Hernández’s performance elevates the usual ‘moody teen’ into a young woman coming to grips with her community.

Complexity in the relationships boils over in the third act, a New Year’s Eve party which culminates in validation for some, mistakes for others. Keep in mind that the framework of Sotomayor’s production is not only centring around the youth but in the coming-of-age story for the nation itself. Her spiritual focusing around Chile’s return to democracy as history occurs in tandem. It’s not the driving force but instead an unseen toxin, twisting itself around the community.

Exposition, of which there is little, is not force-fed to the audience. Too Late To Die Young builds on its atmosphere to generate intrigue. Nothing surrounding Sotomayor’s filmmaking is quick – she takes her time, smouldering and gradually layering her story like smoke. The issue is that there is no fire. Emotional instability rises in a predictable manner, but when there is a pay-off, there’s nothing to bite into. The film has all the components of a timeless narrative, one accessible and relateable for generations despite its South American setting, yet the journey though tapers off in appeal.

This approach can be grating, given the beauty in how the new world is stitched into the lives of our community, only for dissipation to occur when we do focus on our characters. Incidents go without notice for the large part. A minor break-in with the murmurs of outsiders, a passing comment of a deceased horse poisoning the water supply. There was almost a sublime look into the subjective nature of communities outside of suburban landscapes, but it’s lulling influence dismantles the drive of the film.

Inti Brione’s cinematography reflects the realism of the film. Shots are held for as long as they need to be. This is except for the mirroring opening and closing shots. The final shot is a reverse of the beginning, opening up our view to provide insight and round off the film. Just as the country exists in a haze of uncertainty, Brione’s aesthetic is dusty, clouded and reflecting the hesitation of not only of youth but of a country in the between stages of the regime and liberation.

Too Late to Die Young captures that appealing eternal Summer-warmth, which we long for but find no longer exists. Breaking from isolation is far from a fresh concept. Sotomayor stamps her patient directorial style all over the production. It lifts what could be a simple tale into a transfixing piece of cinema, it’s drama tantalising. We hear every breath and movement, we smell the dust rise up as this atmospheric, yet brief drama builds into weak climax. Like the billows of smoke, we grasp as it slips away from us.

Originally published for Wee Review: https://theweereview.com/review/too-late-to-die-young/