“Selah and The Spades” – Selah Summers (Lovie Simone) is cool. She’s a top student at Haldwell, a prestigious boarding school in the Philadelphia suburbs. She’s a cheerleader too, but not the peppy, do-gooder, always-sunny type, because Selah has fought on the front lines at home and at Haldwell. These days, her mother quietly pushes this talented kid to pursue perfection, at least with her grades, but voices aren’t upturned between mother and teen. They don’t have to reach ugly, combative heights in 2020, because – off-screen – enough verbal gunfire and grenades probably rained down on Selah during her forming and storming teenage years. Now, she lays down her arms when her mom speaks.
This popular cheerleader is not in a relationship, but there’s no time for love. Her highest calling is leading the most powerful faction at Haldwell, one that the other four cliques respect and despise. It’s a tricky environment, where everyone works their gamesmanship or gameswomanship into overdrive and holds their cards close to the vest. Selah runs The Spades, and their adolescent superpower will not be revealed in this review, but rest assured, their value to the schoolkid community is most gilded and treasured.
“Selah and The Spades” is a coming of age high school film, although just about everyone believes they have it all figured out, at least these are their fronts. Bobby (Ana Mulvoy Ten) knows too many secrets. Tarit (Henry Hunter Hall) puts up a strong face but feels free to compromise, and Maxxie’s (Jharrel Jerome) dealings – literally and figuratively – are strictly transactional. One of the problems with film, however, is that the kids’ outer shells – like any great poker player’s – are awfully tough to crack. Their casings and spirits have been hardened by years of peer pressure, parental decrees and navigation through social minefields, so any sort of character growth is difficult to come by.
Quarrels and conflicts – throughout the film – are dispassionately raised and quickly folded with detached disregard, as the various factions – that include The Bobbys, The Skins, The Two Toms, and The Sea – engage in rough and tumble discourse that usually ends with hurt feelings and forced détentes.
There’s no question that writer/director Tayarisha Poe is very apt at world building, as she delivers a dour atmosphere of apathetic doom in and around the most pristine, wealthy grounds. Many times, Poe films her subjects from a distance along grassy lawns, twisty staircases and empty basketball courts, and Selah and company maintain full awareness of their place on Planet Earth. Along the way, searing messages sometimes present themselves, and probably the most telling is Selah’s soliloquy of living as a 17 year-old girl in present-day America.
These moments of connection, unfortunately, are too infrequent. Most times, these teens are too cool for school, and therefore not much of a story advances. This includes the main plot thread between Selah and her new protégé Paloma (Celeste O’Connor), as Poe introduces an intriguing Shakespearean setup between the wily know-it-all and the trusting newcomer. Paloma previously sat comfortably on the sidelines at the school newspaper, but she finally starts to spread her wings. Will someone clip them, or will she soar higher?
Despite Poe building a solid and appealing foundation, the narrative never reaches its hopeful heights, so ultimately, “Selah and The Spades” doesn’t deal a winning hand.
⭐⭐ out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Image and trailer credits: Amazon Prime Video