Written and directed by Tayarisha Poe, Selah and the Spades is an Amazon Studios film that tells a powerful coming of age story that dives into high school politics. By telling the story of Selah, a leader of one of five factions in her elite Pennsylvania boarding school, Haldwell. Each of the factions control different elements of banned substances and activities. From gambling, to parties, and drugs, the world of Haldwell is cutthroat and the worst thing you could be in it is a rat.
Seventeen-year-old Selah Summers (Lovie Simone) runs the most dominant group, the Spades. With unshakable poise, she rules her faction as they cater to the most classic of vices and supply students with coveted, illegal alcohol and pills. Tensions between the factions escalate, and when Selah’s best friend/right hand Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome) becomes distracted by a new love, Selah takes on a protégée, sophomore Paloma (Celeste O’Connor). As Selah begins to impart her wisdom on and sets up to rule the school, the world around Selah begins to crumble as she tries to hold on to as much control as she can. Selah’s fears turn sinister as Paloma begins to rise. Selah is insecure, scared of being powerless, even though she needs to transfer that power.
In her feature debut, writer-director Tayarisha Poe immerses us in a heightened depiction of teenage politics. While there are many films and television shows that look at the way teens manipulate and hurt each other for supremacy, there is something unique about Selah and the Spades. This story is more grounded than Gossip Girl and more dynamic than any of the teenage comedies on the same subject. In this teen story, Poe has crafted a searing character study that not only encapsulates just how intoxicating power can be for a teenage girl but also captures the vulnerability that pushes her to power.
Selah is prim and proper on the outside, she wears an impeccable facade of command over her Spades as she moves through Haldwell. Selah is strong and in control, but she’s deeply insecure. While Selah’s monologue which ends in “They always try to break you down when you’re 17,” showcases her struggle and extends an arm of empathy to the audience. But, it’s her conversation with her mother, played by Gina Torres, that lets you into her fear. While she succeeds, she can always do more in the eyes of her mother, she can always be better, and that ever-moving bar of perfection pushes her to cling to any bit of control that presents itself, even if it means sabotaging or hurting someone who trusts her.
Visually, Selah and the Spades is highly stylized, but never overshadows Simone’s raw and emotional performance. While Selah is stoic, Simone brings doubt, a storm brewing in her eyes that translates to the viewer. It’s clear that nothing is perfect, no matter how hard she tries to bury it inside herself.
The only critique I have is that the different factions only appear as a high-level examination. Granted this is Selah’s story, the world she exists in feels slightly hollow and the stakes moving her forward similarly shallow without seeing the larger world of Haldwell and how it functions more broadly. That said, I’m here for Selah, and you should be too.
Overall, Selah and the Spades is a simple yet powerful film that is beautifully written and directed by Poe while Simone brings equal power and insecurity to Selah. I plan to watch everything that Poe creates and Simone stars in. This is a powerful beginning to their feature careers.
Selah and the Spades is available to stream on Amazon Prime on April 17, 2020.
Selah and the Spades
- Rating - 9/109/10
Selah and the Spades is a simple yet powerful film that is beautifully written and directed by Poe while Simone brings an equal power and insecurity to Selah. I plan to watch everything that Poe creates and Simone stars in. This is a powerful beginning to their feature careers.
Kate is co-founder, EIC, and CCO of BWT. She’s also a Certified Rotten Tomatoes Critic, host, and creator of our flagship podcast, But Why Tho? and Did You Have To?. She also manages all PR relationships for comics, manga, film, TV, and anime. She has an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Religious Studies focusing on how pop culture impacts society.