Review by James Lindorf
Haldwell is an elite boarding school in an unnamed part of Pennsylvania. On its private grounds, all debaucherous activities are controlled by one of five student-led factions. Seventeen-year-old Selah Summers (Lovie Simone) runs the Spades, the most respected and feared of the factions. She makes sure they never fail to provide the student body with any of the pills, powders, or alcohol they desire. Selah’s best friend and right hand, Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome), are inseparable until a new love interest enters Maxxie’s view. With more weight on her shoulders, Selah looks to take on protégée to groom as her replacement, enter sophomore transfer student Paloma (Celeste O’Connor). Paloma’s ability to quickly grasp the Spades procedure along with her unfettered access as the school’s photographer makes her the perfect choice. With prom and graduation looming and tensions at an all-time high will Selah be able to hold everything together or will her fear of losing control lead her down a dark path. “Selah and The Spades” will fight it out with the other factions on April 17th only on Amazon Prime.
In her feature debut, writer and director Tayarisha Poe blends high school coming of age movies like “Bring It On” with mob family films like “The Godfather.” Poe focuses on the normal stresses facing teenage girls, classes, parents, relationships, all while cranking things to eleven with the mini-mob elements. While the students get into some risky business, their biggest fears include going to the wrong college or getting expelled, not sleeping with the fishes. Toning things down to fit the setting leaves the film’s consequences at a more family-friendly level. Poe manages to intersperses the two elements beautifully with the realistic feeding the farcical. Selah’s approach to running her spirit squad who choose their outfits, choreograph their routines and do everything they can to control their destinies. This level of control and the strength of Selah’s speech about taking ownership of your body as a young woman is what initially draws Paloma to her. Every time Selah hears from her overbearing mother, she, in turn, seeks that control over everyone in her world. Her need for control ultimately damages her friendships and the relationships with the other factions.
The biggest problem with the world that Poe created is how vast it is. There are a total of five factions but only two and a half matter to the story being told. This element will have a second chance with Amazon’s announcement that a series about the factions is in development. Leaving parts of the world unexplored was a given with a runtime of just under 100 minutes. The more significant hurdle is the pacing of the film because you start to feel its length in the second act. The first act is a whirlwind as we meet all of the characters and learn what each faction controls. The third act is full of tension as the audience wonders how far Selah’s paranoia and need for control will push her. Unfortunately, the middle portion of the film has neither of those strengths. While it features some exciting work from the cinematography and music departments, the story elements are often repeated without progressing the plot.
The center of Poe’s world is populated with three wonderful young actors who own their characters and pull the audience into the story. Simone makes for a fiercely assertive and secretly uncertain Selah, taking complete command of the character even in her most vulnerable moments. Jharrel Jerome is great as Maxxie, who is just trying to find a little fun after being walked on by Selah since they were kids. Jerome doesn’t weight in his story to latch on to like in “Moonlight,” but he makes up for it with a charismatic and honest performance. In only her second role ever, Celeste O’Connor appears to be a natural or perhaps perfectly cast. Celeste is spot on with the emotion and dialogue on par with actors with much more experience.
While “Selah and The Spades” may not be a perfect movie, but it is a tremendous first entry in what promises to be an excellent career for Poe. I will be there day one when the series is released, and until more news comes out, I’ll hope some of this amazingly talented young cast will follow her to the series.
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