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Clique bait - ‘Selah and the Spades’

April 19, 2020
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There are plenty of teen movies out there, comedies and dramas alike. But while the standard high school setting lends itself well to the former, it seems that if you’re looking for the latter, then something more … hallowed … is in order.

Specifically, prep school, in all of its trust-funded, ivy-walled glory. The deep pockets and deeper tradition that comes with such a setting clears the runway for more dramatic stakes. That’s not to say that regular high schools can’t host drama, nor prep schools comedies – there are plenty of examples of both – but the insularity inherent to boarding school is fallow ground for dramatics.

This brings us to “Selah and the Spades,” a new film currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video. The film – a debut feature from writer/director Tayarisha Poe – ventures into the shadowy world of cliques at an upscale Pennsylvania prep school. It’s a deconstruction of what it means to be a big fish in a small pond – particularly when the fish becomes big enough to endanger the delicate equilibrium.

It’s also a look at the fragility of teenage relationships, an examination of how the stresses of high achievement can fracture a young person’s sense of self. The result is a willingness to throw one’s lot in fully with a group; this allows the onus of identity definition to fall on peers … for better and for worse.

Selah (Lovie Simone, TV’s “Greenleaf”) is a student at Haldwell Academy, an elite prep school in the woods of Pennsylvania. She is one of the school’s brightest lights – an A-student who leads the spirit squad. She’s also the leader of the Spades, one of five so-called “factions” – cliques that control all of the illicit activity that takes place at the school.

The Spades handle the illicit substance trade at Haldwell, while the others specialize in things like the gambling trade and cheating and keeping the administration off the scent. There’s money involved, of course – there always is – but none of this is ABOUT the money. It’s about power, plain and simple. Power and control – things that Selah has come to crave above all else.

There’s tension among the leadership of the factions – Selah and her partner Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome, TV’s “Mr. Mercedes”) are facing serious opposition from Bobby (Ana Mulvoy Ten, “Ascension”), while others like Two Tom (Evan Roe, TV’s “Madame Secretary”), Amber B (Francesca Noel, “Then Came You”) and Tarit (Henry Hunter Hall, TV’s “Hunters”) move back and forth in uneasy alliances.

When a sophomore named Paloma (Celeste O’Conner, “Wetlands”) transfers in, Selah sees something special. A kindred spirit and – perhaps – a successor as leader of the Spades.

But Selah’s final semester is far from a smooth one. Not only is she dealing with dissent among the factions, but she’s facing down family pressure with regards to college. There’s a rat somewhere in the Spades. Oh, and Paloma starts to pick things up fast – faster than Selah is prepared for. Uncomfortably fast.

As the school year careens to a close, Selah is forced to make a number of decisions that will have major impacts on both her short-term prospects and long-term plans – decisions that could have unfortunate and far-reaching consequences.

“Selah and the Spades” presents high school as a stylish, stylized battleground. It’s a candy-coated gangster movie, one that renders cliques as crime families – all without winking. There’s no ironic lens here; Poe treats the dealings of the factions with seriousness. It definitely goes over the top at points, but the sincerity with which it is all conveyed makes even the most outrageous aspects of the story fit. There’s an insularity to the proceedings that brings a degree of verisimilitude, despite the base unreality of the circumstances. The elevated nature of the factions and their actions are extreme, yes, but that heightening fits nicely within the established context of the world of Haldwell.

Poe shows remarkable restraint in letting the narrative play out; the temptation to allow the occasional wink or nod must have been significant. But by leaning into the seriousness of it all and allowing a consistent noir sensibility to define the film, we get a different perspective on the usual high school-set fare.

The high quality of performance certainly doesn’t hurt. Simone is wonderful as Selah, embodying the high school queen bee in ways large and small. It’s a fully invested performance, one equally effective in the quasi-crime boss moments and in the more typical high school stretches. O’Conner matches Simone beat for beat and note for note; making a large character arc happen both speedily and subtly is difficult, but she manages beautifully. The rest of the ensemble is strong as well – Ten and Jerome are particular highlights. All in all, exceptional work from the cast from top to bottom.

“Selah and the Spades” is a wonderful transposition of high school movies and crime films, finding a way to fully occupy the relatively snug overlap in that Venn diagram. It is sharp and smart and surprisingly sophisticated – especially for a first feature. Sure, navigating the prep school waters isn’t is fraught as making one’s way through the world of organized crime … but at least at Haldwell Academy, it’s closer than you think.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Sunday, 19 April 2020 12:59

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