Five factions run the underground life of Haldwell School, a prestigious east coast boarding school. At the head of the most powerful faction - The Spades - sits Selah Summers, walking the fine line between being feared and loved.
Every generation has one - that defining coming-of-age high school drama that focuses on cliquedom. Heathers, Cruel Intentions, the eponymous Mean Girls, amongst others, have taken the tired tropes of 80s films and defined the high school experience as it doesn’t differ at all. Tayarisha Poe’s film ‘Selah and the Spades’ is an indie darling which goes beyond the candy-floss of the genre and attempts to take a darker, more provocative approach to a rather dated story.
There is the Queen Bee. Here, it’s Selah (Lovie Simone), who holds all the power at a private school called Haldwell somewhere in Pennsylvania. Selah heads the ‘Spades,’ one of the many groups that form the strange network of sub-cliques in this world of parties, drugs, alcohol and sex. The movie begins by introducing us to the network’s key players one by one, and Selah proves to be the most intimidating no-nonsense task-master of all. Somewhere along the way, we are introduced to new entrant Paloma (Celeste O'Connor), a creative photographer and scholarship student, whom Selah takes under her wing and looks to groom as the new leader of the Spades.
In her first movie itself, director Tayarisha Poe demonstrates a certain command on the style and tone of the story she wants to tell. On paper, Selah is written no less than a mafia lord. She has henchman, she has an agenda. She fights her demons every day (her demanding mother and a sceptical school principal forming the crux of that subplot) which brings forth her vulnerability. But it is not just Selah but every young kid at Haldwell who understands the currency with which the school operates. These are kids when you see them, but when they get down to brass tacks, they are as brutal and monstrous as anyone who holds a certain power. The story is just the way imagined by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (who wrote the famous French novel later adapted into Dangerous Liaisons and then Cruel Intentions). That all vulnerability is lost when crippled by the fear of losing what’s only in your control. On the flip side, towards the end of the film, we are shown small glimpses of how well Paloma handles being in an authoritarian position, giving a slight inkling that while Selah may have jumped the gun, her fears are not completely unfounded.
The richness in the storytelling of Selah and the Spades is that it takes its setting seriously. In retrospect, not a lot of what we experienced in high school seems to matter. But for the kids around whom the story is set, it is their world. Their vices are real and the stakes are as high as in the real world. Selah, Paloma, Maxie, and all the other characters are ‘young’ adults and their world seems real enough to us too. Meanwhile, the screenplay is pretty gripping with equal part resonance and equal part high-intrigue drama. There are multiple stylised sequences (including a poignant dialogue about the pressures of being a young girl) which are familiar in what they are saying but fresh in tone.
Much like its predecessors, Selah and the Spades gives a chance to almost every notable cast-member to give a breakout performance. At the centre of it all is Simone’s Selah who displays the right degree of scheming ruthlessness that you can imagine that someone with years of practice of being a ‘mean girl’ would be able to. O’Connor, on the other hand, has a stunning presence. She is written and introduced as a far softer choice of a protege than, let’s say, a Cady Heron, but her roving eye and simple observations as a precursor to her guile. Maxxie (Moonlight’s distinguished performer Jharrel Jerome) has a dichotomous presence. He is Selah’s partner in running the Spades and his intentions are almost always questionable. It is a true testament to these young actors’ skill, however, that in spite of debasing themselves to their lowest moments, you are still leaving the film with pitying anger rather than resentment.
A silver lining in this lockdown period is that the world is suddenly streaming-only. Selah and the Spades premiered in January 2019 at the annual Sundance Film Festival. Skipping a theatrical release scheduled for more than a year later, it was acquired and released by Amazon Studios. This gives us the opportunity to discover a filmmaker with a very strong and distinctive voice. Poe has an absolute feminist stance in terms of the narrative of the movie which channels the seminal figures of such adolescent fare from the past. But her snappy storytelling and cool visual technique shows incredible polish as well. I foreshadow it to be recognizable, something that she could be known for in the future, and that makes this a very worthy debut.
For its gripping narrative, there is a secret that all of Haldwell knows and won’t reveal. This comes to light at the climactic moment of the film reaching to which we assume the ultimate display of wrongdoing. That doesn’t actually happen and we realise that the worst deed that these kids could succumb to has already been done. It is just that the Spades and the surrounding networks have chosen to either stay mum or suppress that memory. It is a sharp tool but for those who are used to a more traditional trajectory, may come across as vague and dull. The inconclusivity of their story could be frustrating.
Music and Other Departments:
Jomo Fray is the master cinematographer who captures Poe’s vision in an interesting but plush series of compositions. The film is not confined to an enclosed space of a lavish school set and utilises a lot of the changing landscape around. The Spades have their meetings with rivals in the nearby woods, which is also the venue for the fancy anti-prom that the kids hold at the end of the movie. The interiors of the dorm-rooms reflect the eclectic styles and interests that each inhabitant possesses. Fray gets a chance to play with colour and lighting thanks to all the scenes being set at different timings and moods. The production design is itself quite ‘hip’ and cool’ with small whimsical touches for added style. The soundtrack of the film is unexpected for its setting, but some of the placement of the songs will pleasantly surprise you.
Did I Enjoy It?
Yes. Barring a few sequences in the middle where the conversations become a bit slow, Selah and the Spades is imaginative in the way it tells its story.
Do I Recommend It?
Yes. If you are already into high school dramas and enjoy their political intrigue without frivolity, this movie is for you.