Streaming Now: ‘Selah and the Spades’ is an evolved high school drama

From writer-director Tayarisha Poe, 2019 Sundance Film Festival favorite Selah and the Spades drops on Amazon Prime Video April 17.

Following the five “factions” of the posh Pennsylvania boarding school Haldwell, Poe’s feature debut is a dark, anxiety-ridden and heightened version of the high school drama. When sophomore photographer Paloma (Celeste O’Connor) is recruited by cunning “Spades” faction leader Selah (Lovie Simone), their semester is sent spiraling – though not in ways you’d expect from a typical teen drama. Selah and her best friend Maxxie (Emmy winner Jharrel Jerome of Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us) are graduating seniors, and they look to Paloma to rise in their ranks and eventually take over the Spades after they’re gone. Haldwell becomes more twisted as the 97-minute running time ticks by, creating a slow burn and building tension not only within the factions, but inside Selah herself as we learn about her dark past and the lengths she’s gone to keep her place at the top of the Haldwell food chain.

On the cusp of adulthood, these young characters have created their own sense of structure and hierarchy. The factions are creating some semblance of control before they’re hit with the realities of adulthood, where choices about which world or group to be part of becomes less clear-cut. This is the most interesting aspect of Poe’s feature, though it’s clear from the beginning third-person narration that “this story is about Selah.” Promising performer Simone creates a complex and interesting protagonist, and Poe is sure to show us the origin of her determination and power-hungry self-absorption when we meet her overbearing mother, who balks at a 97 percent on a math exam and tells a long-winded fable about a scorpion and a frog. 

With echoes of Heathers or the “animal world” portrayed in Mean Girls, Selah and the Spades is far from a comedy or a commentary. But it does forge its own path and completely original style, making Haldwell feel real. It’s not surprising that Indiewire reports Amazon’s plans to develop it into a television series – it feels like a more mature Riverdale, emulating cringe-y privilege, angst and frustration – as high school often does. It’s a simultaneously political and personal drama, despite its dark and edgy tone, presenting a diverse cast of talented young actors and how they cope with the unique pressures of adolescence. 

Given the chaotic and heartbreaking state of the world in the time of coronavirus uncertainty, Selah and the Spades isn’t necessarily a fun escape. But it can’t help the timing of its release, and Poe admirably gets into the nitty-gritty of high school drama in a new and different way. 

“In film, in most Western storytelling, there is this false, persistent assumption that the relatable ‘every man’ story can only be successful — and therefore must only be told — with white characters at the center of them. And that’s just not my jam,” Poe told IndieWire at Sundance. Though she takes some time to make the point, she does it with this memorable, elevated high school drama.

© Georgiana E. Presecky (4/16/2020) 

Photos Courtesy of Amazon Studios 

Photos: Lovie Simone plays the title character in Selah and the Spades, a stylistic and tense new approach to the high school drama. Celeste O’Connor and Emmy winner Jharrel Jerome also star as Paloma and Maxxie, Selah’s recruits.

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