It's quite interesting that writer/director Rian Johnson would have sent out a tweet recently expressing his admiration for the movie “Selah and the Spades” given that it actually reminded me of a Johnson directorial effort. Specifically, “Selah” evoked Johnson's debut feature, “Brick”, which starred Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a neo-noir whose cast was populated by teenagers inhabiting the traditional adult archetypes one would find in a classic noir film. Similarly, “Selah and the Spades,” which is streaming on Anazon Prime, transplants the world of a mob movie (one also typically populated by adult characters) to the domain of high school.
The film’s title refers to Selah (played by Lovie Simone), a high school senior attending a prestigious boarding school in Pennsylvania. At this institution there are five factions, each of which is involved in some sort of shady behavior, like holding parties after curfew. In the case of Selah, her group is known as the Spades, and they're the ones in charge of supplying booze and drugs to fellow students. As her final semester of high school gets underway, Selah begins to befriend younger classmate, Paloma Davis (Celeste O'Connor). At first a timid photographer who spends her time getting lost in the music on her iPod Shuffle, Paloma quickly becomes Selah’s the confident right-hand woman.
That confidence could prove to be a problem given that Selah doesn't like anyone to upset the strict ecosystem of power she's established. Selah is a ruthless individual, but thankfully this high school mobster movie doesn't go the easy route of making her Regina George with Michael Corleone's personality. Instead, writer/director Tayarisha Poe opts for something more specifically realized, particularly in regard to why Selah is so committed to holding onto her level of influence inside her faction. An early scene makes this reasoning explicit, as Selah delivers an extended soliloquy regarding why she and her fellow cheerleaders have full control over their outfits, their routines and anything else related to the Spades organization.
Such an explanation revolves around all the control society puts on 17-year-old girls and who they are, what they dress like, how they act. It's all suffocating. At this boarding school, Selah and her classmates are isolated from some of that. They have a chance to take control of their lives, and that control is something Selah clings to like there's no tomorrow. Selah can be a ruthless person who does some truly unnerving things throughout the course of the film. However, Poe's writing always ensures that Selah's actions are put into action - however subtly - by that core motivating trait related to control. This consistent feature of Poe's screenplay makes it so that you can see the psychological impetus for Selah's behavior even as you recoil in horror at the cold-hearted actions of which she is capable.
Poe's ability to make these characters so well-rendered has the added benefit of helping “Selah and the Spades” execute a high school mobster film without dovetailing into grating self-parody. A scene where a teenage snitch is tied up in the school's auditorium is an especially good example of this. The very concept of this sequence makes it sound like something out of a movie whose quality is closer to “Lemonade Mouth” than “The Spectacular Now.” The fact that Selah's level of commitment to maintaining her power has been so vividly conveyed up to this point, though, makes the sight of a tied-up blindfolded high schooler one the viewer can buy into. To boot, Poe pivots the entire sequence around a believable rift between Selah and Paloma.
Constantly rooting “Selah and the Spades” in such effectively realized character dynamics makes even the most heightened moments of the production go down smoothly. Poe's direction is a bit more scattershot in terms of overall quality than her screenplay. Most notably, her heavy emphasis on wide-angle shots is well-executed on a technical level, but they lack a thematic connection to the characters and plot lines. However, such shots do show a level of admirable ambition that reflects the similarly gusto screenplay as well as the thoroughly committed lead performances of Simone and O'Connor. It's not quite the next “Brick” in terms of genre homages set inside a high school. However, “Selah and the Spades” does manage to take the concept of a high school mobster movie to some fascinating places.
Douglas Laman is a film critic, who, when not watching movies, attends Collin College, hangs out with friends … and watches movies. For more of his work and ramblings, visit his website, landofthenerds.blogspot.com. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Texoma Marketing and Media Group.