Selah and the Spades (2020)
"We feel like we’re observing something real but elevated, lush and elite but attainable."
Selah and the Spades follows five ‘factions’ at a private school in Philadelphia, each one with its own contribution to the pupils’ earnest indulgence in good times. There are the bookies, the party organisers, the rogue teacher’s pets, the prefects (who keep the faculty in ignorant bliss), and the drug peddlers. These are the titular Spades, ruled over by Selah Summers (Lovie Simone), her right-hand man Maxxi (Jharrel Jerome, When They See Us) and her prodigy, new-kid Paloma (Celeste O’Connor).
Paloma is a photographer and once invited into the Spades’ inner circle becomes our main eye on the world. She’s positioned as reminding Selah of herself before the pressure and responsibility of keeping rich kids in “booze, pills, powders and fun”. She is to be taught and molded. She will be Selah’s legacy.
It’s a world we’ve seen before; rich teens under pressure from parents and peers to be ‘perfect’. But the story here is more Goodfellas than Clueless. The factions have strict rules about ‘no rats’ and those rules are enforced through fear and real violence. Selah’s is a world of power, and on-screen nods to the rise of the Romans and Macbeth hint at themes around rivalry, trust and betrayal.
"The story here is more Goodfellas than Clueless."
There’s also some familiar stuff here about the hubris that can come from privilege, and its clash against the world outside of their boarding school bubble. But the consequences don’t come down upon our characters in the way we might expect. Writer and first-time director Tayarisha Poe has her kids getting up to no good, and getting away with it.
Shots are shaky and textured, often appearing candid. We feel like we’re observing something real but elevated, lush and elite but attainable. The factions are distinguished by the film’s shifting colour palettes and the way they dress, but the teens’ clothes feel authentic and their skin looks natural. It’s like a glimpse into a dream you’ve just woken up from - Alice in Wonderland and even Bugsy Malone seem to have influence here, but it’s a far cry from more stylised films like the recent Paradise Hills.
The sex and gender politics are strong. Poe gives us a spirit squad who know full well that 17-year-old girls are never taken seriously and they’ve snatched back control over their bodies and uniforms. Selah herself has no interest in dating and characters aren’t over-sexualised; in this way, the film very much practices what it preaches.
Poe uses music, and the lack thereof, to excellent effect. Hedonistic parties are contrasted with much quieter moments of contemplation and stillness, and the score regularly distorts as Selah begins to lose control of herself or her followers.
"It’s like a glimpse into a dream you’ve just woken up from."
Selah is ruthless, but she’s not a one-dimensional bitch/power junkie. However, this has been somewhat undermined by the finale, as she begins to display behaviours of self-destruction so common in characters who have power and are desperate to hold onto it. She could be ultimately unlikeable, but Simone provokes empathy in our lead. Glimpses into her home life and her Tiger Mom (Gina Torres, Serenity) show the stress put upon Selah, and we can believe it of many of the other kids too. Paloma tells Selah, “You know you don’t have to be perfect, not all the time,” but although friendships make it all a little less exhausting, it’s not a message that really gets through.
The big ‘job’ of this youthful gangster flick is a clandestine prom, that will only work if everyone trusts one another - but people get ideas, get too big for their boots, the green-eyed monster pays a visit and vulnerabilities turn into bad choices. But these are characters we understand will learn from their mistakes and even thrive - whether their futures will be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in the eyes of the ‘real world’ is not a judgment the film makes. Selah and the Spades is just a snapshot into an exaggerated yet believable world, in which it’s pretty fun to spend 90 minutes or so.