Amazon UK film review: Selah and the Spades
Matthew Turner | On 22, Apr 2020
Director: Tayarisha Poe
Cast: Lovie Simone, Celeste O’Connor, Jharrel Jerome, Gina Torres, Ana Mulvoy Ten, Jesse Williams
Watch Selah and the Spades online in the UK: Amazon Prime
Written and directed by Tayarisha Poe, Selah and the Spades takes place almost entirely within the grounds of Haldwell School, a prestigious boarding school on the east coast. Unbeknownst to the teachers, the school is run by five gangs or factions, one of which is the Spades, lead by its ruthless leader, Selah Summers (Lovie Simone).
As the story begins, Selah is keen to find her successor before she graduates. She latches on to keen photographer Paloma (Celeste O’Connor) and begins to groom her for the job, which involves keeping order and supplying the school with drugs and alcohol. However, when Paloma proves a natural fit for the position and begins ingratiating herself with other faction leaders, Selah becomes increasingly suspicious of those around her.
Poe’s direction is extremely stylish, from the scene compositions and framing to the rhythmic editing and use of music. In particular, her world-building is extremely impressive – Haldwell school has its own unique atmosphere that seems almost dream-like – it’s even set within verdant green forest – accentuated by the fact that we never see any of the students in class and there only seems to be one teacher (Jesse Williams’ headmaster). On top of that, the various factions have their own set of immutable laws, like mafia gangs dividing up territories.
The setting is immediately intriguing and the female perspective proves fascinating as Poe’s script explores the desire for power and control – as Selah puts it in an early line, “When you’re 17, you’ve gotta grab control wherever you can.” To that end, the film commendably resists the usual teen clichés, not least when it comes to the idea of relationships – Selah’s reasons for not having a boyfriend may raise a laugh, but they’re also a refreshing departure from the norm.
There are nice touches of humour elsewhere, most notably when Selah tricks Paloma into taking photos of a cheating couple by telling her it’s an assignment for a class called “Modern socialisation in the surveillance era”. However, the film is decidedly not a comedy – indeed, it has more in common with gangster films, particularly with regards to the fates that befall those that don’t pay for their product.
Simone is terrific as Selah, playing her with a complex mixture of confidence and cunning, laced with insecurity – her interactions with her mother (Gina Torres in a blazing cameo) is especially revealing. O’Connor is superb as Paloma, sparking captivating chemistry with each of her scene partners. There’s also strong support from Moonlight’s Jharrel Jerome as Selah’s second-in-command, who becomes a liability after he gets a girlfriend.
If there’s a complaint to be made, it’s only that the central story is a little weak, ultimately pulling its punches instead of pursuing its ideas to their logical conclusion. However, there’s more than enough here to make a trip to Haldwell worth your while and it will be fascinating to see what Poe does next.
Selah and the Spades is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.