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CS Review: Amazon’s Selah and The Spades from Tayarisha Poe

Tayarisha Poe’s feature directorial debut centers on Selah Summers (Lovie Simone), the head of The Spades, one of the five factions who run the underground life of Haldwell School, a prestigious east coast boarding school. As the leader of the most powerful faction, Selah walks a fine line between being feared and loved, struggling with the icy judgments and demands of perfection from her mother (played by Suits’ Gina Torres) and the unimaginable standards those closest to her are required to live up to.

My expectations of Selah and The Spades were quickly subverted as the tale plays out like a gangster movie embroiled in a high school cliquey drama, one that takes some seriously dark turns as we learn more about Selah and why The Spades are the overall rulers of the school. The groups themselves essentially run like an adolescent crime syndicate, each playing a part in allowing the student body to engage in their respective vices. Selah’s crew, consisting of her right-hand man Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome) and newcomer Paloma (Celeste O’Connor), supply the booze, pills, powders, and fun, considering it “a kindness” to “push you past your limit.” The biggest rule among the factions is not being a rat, for the “only consequences they’re concerned with are the ones they impose themselves.”

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No one’s consequences are more brutal than Selah’s, who encourages violence as a lesson. Paloma’s arrival amidst growing tensions between some of the factions at the school sets the rest of the story in motion as she is befriended (or, arguably, targeted) by Selah who sees the younger girl as a potential protégée to her legacy once Selah graduates and moves onto college; a big step in her future that she isn’t quite ready to take. Being the leader of The Spades has provided Selah with a certain power that, at times, is utilized in vicious and unforgiving ways. Lord John Acton once wrote, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” As we learn more about Selah (including an unraveling mystery of what happened to an unseen character named Tila), we see how this power has gone to her head.

We’re not given too much of a background story for the majority of the characters, but we learn enough about Selah to deconstruct her actions. At a time when she feels controlled by her mother and other adults around her, being a leader of these factions has given her a sense of control, respect, and identity that she is unwilling to give up. She despises looking vulnerable in front of even her closest confidantes, hiding away to cry alone when her perfectly polished mask slips and we’re reminded that she is, after all, still a kid.

Newbie Paloma challenges Selah as they begin to bond. Selah initially passes along her wisdom to Paloma, wanting to shape the new girl into being more like her, but then Selah struggles with the feeling of losing control after Paloma proves to be a quick study. Paloma is set to take over The Spades for Selah once she graduates, resulting in Selah’s fears turning sinister (despite putting this take over in motion in the first place) and showing the audience how far she’ll go to maintain control over her life and those around her. Paloma reveals she may willing to make the hard choice and get her hands dirty, but she resists this ideology, not ready to embrace the drama and violence Selah seemingly thrives on from a position of power. Paloma would rather advocate for community and connectedness, would rather teenagers be kids instead of at war with each other. The other factions take note of her refreshing leadership style while Selah grapples with losing control and confronting her issues with someone being “better than her” as Paloma adjusts to the “culture shock” that is Haldwell, being forced to choose which cog in the wheel she wants to be.

While Poe’s first feature is overall brilliant, visually striking and personal, there are a few gaps that make the movie feel slightly incomplete. You’re left realizing that there is so much unanswered, specifically about the main characters, which is frustrating not because Poe doesn’t give enough detail to paint a picture of these kids enough to tell her story, but because they are so fascinating you wish you knew more about the characters surrounding Selah and what drives them.

As far as Selah herself, we are given nearly every piece of the puzzle we need to understand her motivations that lead to unforgivable actions, but there are a few holes left behind that make us question what more there is to her as a human being. One scene in particular that stuck out to me left me curious about Selah’s sexuality, for example, and her views on relationships. She tells Paloma that she’s never been interested in dating or sex; on the one hand, she might see those types of connections as a weakness as she says, “Why not just do things that keep you from crying in bathrooms” like other girls? The way she speaks in that scene, though, harping on really never being interested in sex left me wondering if Selah is perhaps asexual, even though the movie plays, very lightly, on an intimate tension between Selah and Paloma that could be nodding at attraction or could just as easily be the love of a platonic bond between two friends that, sadly, becomes dangerously toxic as Selah spirals, potentially destroying what could have been the most meaningful relationship in her life.

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The teenagers’ battle with the law, aka, the school’s Headmaster, played by Grey’s Anatomy’s Jesse Williams, comes to a head when their senior prom is threatened, steering the final act of the film. There is an underlying darkness throughout the story stemming from the psychological turmoil of school, the intense pressures parents and adults can haphazardly place on kids (without bothering to listen to them in return), as well as the real-life consequences from making bad and drastic choices that don’t often feel tangible when we’re young until we go one step too far and everything becomes a little too real a little too quickly.

The ending of the film will leave you wanting more — more of Poe’s unique storytelling, more of the compelling performances by the young leads who never slip once throughout the film — stuck with the knowledge of the heavy toll certain choices have had on the young characters that, ultimately, may or may not have prepared them in the worst ways for life outside of the walls of Haldwell.

Selah and The Spades is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

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