By Mark Saldana
Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)
Available on April 17, 2020 for streaming through Amazon is an intriguing high school drama that features an assortment of new, young acting talent and marks the feature film debut of gifted filmmaker Tayarisha Poe. Selah and the Spades doesn’t necessarily reinvent the high school drama, but gives audiences a fresher take on the genre and wonderfully features people of color in the lead roles. Poe’s talents for filmmaking and storytelling are clearly evident, but I feel that audiences have yet to see the writer/director at her full potential. Nevertheless Selah and the Spades should serve as the key she needs to truly unlock that potential.
The movie takes place at a fictional Pennsylvania boarding school that is divided into various factions that serve a variety of the students’ needs. Senior Selah Summers (Lovie Simone) has served as the leader of The Spades, a faction dedicated to selling the student body various drugs and alcoholic beverages. As Selah fearfully dreads her future collegiate life at a university she does not really want to attend, she must maintain a strong and confident facade to both her own faction and the other factions wanting a taste of her power. She must also find an appropriate successor worthy of the streses and responsibilities.
Enter underclassman Paloma Davis (Celeste O’Connor), a transfer student whom Selah nearly instantly takes under her wing. As Selah grooms and trains Paloma as the newest member of The Spades, she must also deal with the possibility that there is a traitor in her faction that could totally dismantle everything she worked so hard to earn. As Paloma gets to know Selah better, she also comes to the realization that her seemingly fearless leader might be a victim of her own power-hunger. Paloma begins to realize her own potential as the new leader of The Spades, but the current leader may not be so willing to relinquish her power when the time actually arrives.
Overall, I am quite impressed with Tayarisha Poe’s debut in that she presents an intriguing story with compelling characters. I also was quite taken with her development of the Selah character. She takes a Heathers-like archetype and presents her as a real well-rounded person. Not only does the audience get to see the seemingly ruthless and over-confident faction leader, they also witness a vulnerable teenager that fears a big change in her life and an uncertain future. Of course, writing and direction are only a part of the formula. The rest must come from the actor portraying the character and Lovie Simone absolutely nails it beautifully.
The movie also features great performances by Jharrel Jerome, Anna Mulvoy-Ten, Gina Torres, and Jessie Williams. Actor Celeste O’Connor also shines brightly as Selah’s new friend and leader-in-training Paloma Davis, a bright-eyed and ambitious newcomer to the boarding school looking to fit in. O’Connor brings much dimensionality to the character and offers a charismatic screen presence that not only wins over the audience, but also the characters in the film. She helps make Paloma a smart, admirable, but more impressionable and vulnerable character who needs to be more wary of Selah’s weaknesses and the potential havoc those weaknesses can unleash.
My only complaint about the film concerns the somewhat weak climax and resolution that it delivers. I feel that Poe’s examination of power and the drive that people in power have to maintain it needed a stronger and more disturbing finish. Nevertheless, I still admire Tayarisha Poe’s work here and definitely see a bright future ahead for her in cinema. It is a film I must highly recommend as a rather stirring piece of modern cinema.