Maybe it’s a part of growing old, but the world feels so much harder and unforgiving today than it did when we were young. Our coming-of-age stories appear to have followed suit. Selah and the Spades is brutal and cutthroat, packaged in a slick aesthetic. It takes the traditional trappings of coming-of-age stories and views them through a filter of hardness and a calculated coldness.
Selah and the Spades is the feature debut of writer and director Tayarisha Poe. The film stars Lovie Simone, Celeste O’Connor, and Moonlight‘s Jharrel Jerome and was an official selection of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Selah and the Spades is set in the isolated but unforgiving microcosm of an elite boarding school. The student body is separated into five warring “factions” ruled by five adolescent kingpins, running the classic hustle of buying and selling illegal alcohol and drugs.
Seventeen-year-old Selah Summers (Simone) rules the school as the head honcho for the most powerful faction, The Spades. With her graduation on the horizon, Selah is looking to find her replacement and recruits sophomore idealist Paloma (O’Connor). When Paloma’s ambition starts to become a threat to Selah, things take a sinister turn.
Power is the Most Addictive Drug
Director Tayarisha Poe took inspiration for Selah and the Spades from a 2014 collection of short stories that she had been working on. She was compelled by a drive to create characters that did exactly as they pleased and acted based on desire, rather than logic and overthinking. In many ways, Selah and the Spades is the traditional “mean girl” trope played out to its most frightening extreme. An image of a stony-faced cheerleader who doesn’t have to bloody her own knuckles and can rely on a small personal army to do it for her.
Appropriately the film’s tagline is “Private School. Hard Knocks.” There’s a poetic balance to setting scenes of brutality among the trapping of picturesque, ivy-covered privilege. The setting alone takes a strong, critical stance on privilege and power.
Not Your Mama’s Mean Girls
Selah and the Spades is a far cry from Mean Girls, The Breakfast Club, or any other heartwarming and funny coming-of-age story that you may be familiar with. The film has an edge that cuts. It’s angry, angsty, and harsh. The film has a slightly feminist bend with its focus on young girls in positions of ruthless power and complete agency over their destiny and bodies, but it is harsh and biting feminism. There’s a haze of pessimistic reality that hangs over the entire film.
Watching Selah and the Spades can be likened to sitting through a classic Shakespearan play that has a modern skin on it, like Macbeth set in modern-day New York. It’s a highly elevated take on teen squabbling, with high drama put into an unconventional package. It makes sense. The petty drama in the lives of school-age children is just a miniature version of the same struggles and insecurities we spend the rest of our adult lives dealing with. Selah and the Spades is a timeless tale about the corrosive properties of power and the constant struggle to remain on top and defend a legacy. However, seeing those very mature themes carried out by young people is jarring. It’s probably the most effective device in the film.
Drama Never Looked So Good
Selah and the Spades is a goddamn good-looking film. Its aesthetics are on point. It has the same cool aloofness about it as the nightmare popular girl that you still remember. The beauty of the film is part of what makes it so impactful. It seduces you, lures you in, and then holds you in a vice grip so that you pay attention.
This is all carried off by the remarkable performances of the cast. Not a member of the ensemble is out of place, as performers manage to pull off a certain level of youthful naivete along with their sharp-tongued dialogue. It’s a balance that is just too delicious. One might say that the film has more style than plot, the action tends to meander, but I wouldn’t necessarily count that as a negative.
Selah and the Spades is a high school drama that challenges the viewer. It’s in your face, unapologetic, and uncomfortably honest. It is sure to find its cult following.
Do you think Selah and the Spades accurately represents what it’s like to grow up in 2020? Let us know in the comments!
Selah and the Spades will premiere on Amazon Prime Video on April 17, 2020!
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