By Kirsten Coachman
“Because when you’re 17, you’ve got to grab onto that control wherever you can and hold tight for dear life because they always try to take it from you, don’t they? They always try to break you down when you’re 17.”
Hitting Amazon Prime this weekend is “Selah and the Spades,” the stylish feature film debut from writer/director Tayarisha Poe. The film, which premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, primarily takes place within the walls of a Pennsylvania boarding school, Haldwell, where the student body’s social scene is divided into five factions. At the head of the class sit the Spades, who satisfy their peers’ vices, ranging from a variety of illicit drugs and alcohol, led by Selah Summers (Lovie Simone) with her level-headed best friend Maxxie (Emmy winner Jharrel Jerome) by her side. Just as tensions between the factions begin to boil over, the 17-year-old senior decides to take a new sophomore student and budding photographer, Paloma (Celeste O’Connor), under her wing as a potential heir to her throne.
“Selah and the Spades” carves out its own space in the teen film genre—a genuine feat— accomplished by taking the concept of everyday high school cliques that audiences recognize and pushing it further by emphasizing the overall importance of power to Selah, especially as a young woman. While other films might focus on power derived solely from popularity, Poe looks past superficiality in favor of rooting power in respect and autonomy.
The film’s cast of up-and-coming actors set the tone through their notable performances. Simone, in particular, captures the overall complexity of Selah. In a monologue that the character gives early on in the film, Selah demonstrates a keen awareness about the realities of being a 17-year-old woman and the double-standards that are imposed upon her. Simone’s composed yet matter-of-fact delivery direct to camera is impeccably executed as her character addresses Paloma and, seemingly, the audience as well. Yet, that’s only one side of the coin when it comes to understanding the character’s desire for control and power. While Selah flexes her dominance at all-faction meetings, it only takes a phone call from her mother inquiring about her grades to get a glimpse of the insecurities that are truly at the wheel.
As Paloma, O’Connor delivers a performance in which the progression of her character is evident throughout the course of the film. As she takes in the social environment of her new school, the quiet photographer quickly finds her footing alongside Selah. O’Connor brings a refreshing sort of naiveté to her character that informs Paloma’s interactions with other factions as well as her potential leadership style.
Tying the film together is its overall look, shot in mostly natural and slightly muted tones. It picks its moments for bursts of color to evoke a sense of jubilation at an underground party or a dreamlike quality as students pregame before prom. It’s not a reach to state that this one of the most aesthetically pleasing films to be released this year. There are scenes throughout that are framed in such a way that they could double as stills with a quick snap of a lens, which one can only assume is a wink at Paloma’s photographic sensibilities.
Overall, “Selah and the Spades” proves to be an intriguing portrait of power within the social dynamics of high school. Poe’s feature debut explores not only how to strategically wield one’s power but also the belief of what it takes to maintain it.
“Selah and the Spades” is now streaming on Amazon Prime.