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With: Lovie Simone, Jharrel Jerome, Celeste O'Connor, Ana Mulvoy Ten, Jesse Williams, Nekhebet Kum Juch, Francesca Noel, Henry Hunter Hall, Krish Bhuva, Benjamin Breault
Written by: Tayarisha Poe
Directed by: Tayarisha Poe
MPAA Rating: R for teen drug content, and language
Running Time: 97
Date: 04/17/2020

Selah and the Spades (2020)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Faction Flick

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Debuting Friday, April 17, 2020 on Amazon Prime, Selah and the Spades is not a strong film, but it's also not too bad. I'm giving it an extra half-star for the same reason many of my colleagues have. It's the debut feature by Tayarisha Poe, and given that she's a black female, and given that the number of black female film directors in history is shamefully low — even digging through my own memory I can still only come up with less than a dozen — she gets that many more points for breaking through the barrier. Selah and the Spades has a strong visual style, and a strong attitude, which has also led many of my colleagues to label it "promising." Its flaws mainly lie in its tone, and the fact that it's a high school movie that recalls too many other high school movies.

Selah (Lovie Simone) attends the prestigious boarding school Haldwell, and is the leader of one of five "factions" there. Her faction is mainly in charge of alcohol and drugs, while others are in charge of setting up illegal parties, or in diverting the faculty's attention elsewhere. Selah is a senior, who not only excels at her schoolwork, but also excels on her cheerleading squad. She strives for power and perfection, but has been thinking of what will happen after school ends. Her sidekick Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome) has found a new girlfriend and doesn't seem interested in business anymore. So she selects a freshman, Paloma (Celeste O'Connor), to be her new disciple, and to retain some semblance of control.

Paloma is shy at first, hiding behind her camera as she takes snapshots, but eventually her association with Selah makes her confidence grow, and she begins asserting herself in ways that Selah doesn't like. Everything comes down to, of course, prom night. An illicit prom is held in the woods after the headmaster (Jesse Williams) has canceled the official one, giving things a more mystical, sinister quality.

Director Poe brings a hard, rich quality to her images, showing the school as a well-oiled, highbrow machine, wherein everyone is on their toes at all times. The meetings of the five factions (plus, for some reason, a sixth seat at the table for Selah's assistant; why don't the others get assistants?) taking place at a table in the woods, each member with his or her own ornate chair, are gorgeous little chess matches. But Poe also shows the cracks in this system, as students become stressed or lose focus. In a few heartbreaking scenes, Selah secretly speaks in soft, sad tones to her disapproving mother on the phone (chastising her daughter for getting only a 93% on a math test).

There are a few faltering moments when acting shows through, rather than character. But the main problem is that the movie recalls everything from Heathers to Rushmore to Dear White People (a college movie, not a high school movie, but still similar) to Mean Girls and Booksmart. But while all those movies have their funny sides, Selah and the Spades doesn't. It may wish to be funny in spots, and certainly wants to be at least satirical, but its thick shell keeps it from being anything but serious. Yet the movie's attributes, both artistic and cultural, outweigh its flaws, making it worth a look.

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