One of the new slate of films to release on video directly, I wanted the opportunity to view Selah and The Spades for several reasons. It deals with intense, coming of age themes and some interesting high school interactions but most importantly, it deals with friendships and how we learn to get along with others. I was highly curious about how the film would explore these concepts. While both the beginning of the film and the pace are slower than I would prefer, the acting is extraordinarily good, the intense themes are explored with realism and authenticity, and the characters have a unique diversity that draws the viewer into the story.
Selah and The Spades, written and directed by Tayarisha Poe in her first feature film explores the character Selah (Lovie Simone), a senior at a Pennsylvania boarding school, where she leads a faction of students called The Spades. With the help of her right-hand man, Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome), Selah deals drugs to the other students and wrangles with the leader, Bobby (Ana Mulvoy-Ten) of one of the other factions. But Selah is going to be graduating and must find a replacement soon. So she befriends a new student, Paloma Davis (Celeste O’Connor), who reminds her of herself and she begins training her. Along the way, secrets emerge and we discover that Selah struggles with giving up control of her power, control that she must give up if she is going to be able to grant Paloma her faction. The question becomes whether Selah will allow jealousy and power to control her or if she will allow friendship to govern her actions?
Part of what makes this so fascinating is the exploration of those intense themes of jealousy, control, power, and friendship and how that all plays out against the background of a boarding school for high school age students. The five factions of students rule the school, even though the adults, the principal, and parents remain unaware of the full extent of the student’s powers. While the principal attempts to shut down some of the major issues around the school, the students find ways to divert his control and continue their risky actions, including planning for the senior dance. And while the students go to classes, their illegal actions like selling drugs impact the other students in negative ways and the power that the students wield leads to consequences that even adults would struggle with. The struggle of Selah’s choices is what makes the film so intense and riveting, as she deals with giving control to Paloma and trusting her partner, Maxxie. The exploration, the manipulations but also Selah’s pain over past choices and her lack of desire to leave school for the “real world”, ie college, is what gives the film its impact.
Equally engaging as Selah is Paloma, as her newness to the school and the factions lead her to ask questions that Selah struggles to answer. She also questions some of the darker choices that Selah makes including Selah’s lack of trust of Maxxie and ultimately pointing out that Paloma has to do things her own way, despite Selah training her. The contrast between the two characters is dynamic and the chemistry between the two actors makes the film engaging.
This is a diverse cast along with diverse characters. One of the most intriguing elements of the film is the choice to make Selah lack interest in dating or sex. While they do not specifically call the character asexual, she is clear that she is not interested in the games that others engage in, including Maxxie. She feels that it causes others to lose focus and gives her an edge that others don’t have. That makes for an intriguing dynamic to all of the characters and illustrates a unique quality to the movie and to the characters.
The extraordinary acting is far and above what makes the characters so interesting. Lovie Simmons does an incredible job of portraying Selah, her wit, intelligence, and charisma. Her chemistry with Celeste O’Connor playing Paloma creates a richness to the characters. Besides her interactions with Celeste, Lovie’s dynamic with Jharell Jerome playing Maxxie and Ana Mulvoy-Ten as Bobby are equally special, strong and emotional, each actor bringing talent to their role. Celeste O’Connor brought wisdom and strength to her role as Paloma, her ability to portray someone with an outside view part of what tells the story. Jharell Jerome’s portrayal of Maxxie’s friendship with Selah is brilliant and Ana Mulvoy-Ten is excellent as Bobby.
If there is any element that needed work it would be the pacing. The introduction to the characters is slow and the pacing does take a while to build. Once we meet Paloma and once the secrets begin building up and spilling out, then the film picks up the pace and the conclusion is riveting and powerful. It is well worth waiting for the movie to build the pace.
If you like powerful coming of age stories with realistic and authentic characters, this film might intrigue you. The acting is emotional and engaging, with moving performances by all the actors. The visual elements are beautiful and the themes of control, power, and friendship are intense and visceral. I enjoyed the characters and found the diversity one of the most appealing elements of the film.
Rating: 4 factions out of 5.