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"SELAH AND THE SPADES"
(2020) (Lovie Simone, Celeste O'Connor) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: The senior leader of a drug-dealing faction at a boarding school takes on a new student as her protégé.
PLOT:

At the prestigious Haldwell Boarding School, five factions serve the student body's various vices. Each has a leader and those students serve as a governing council of sorts, with it being unclear how aware Headmaster Banton (JESSE WILLIAMS) is of what's occurring within and outside the school's classrooms and dormitories. While each of those faction leaders -- including Roberta "Bobby" Pellegrino (ANA MULROY TEN), Thomas "Two Tom" Thomas II (EVAN ROE) and Tarit Toll Perilstein (HENRY HUNTER HALL) -- are supposed to be equals, senior Selah Summers (LOVIE SIMONE) views herself as the ruling queen.

Along with her right-hand teen, Maxxie Ayoade (JHARREL JEROME), Selah runs the Spades, the school faction that peddles any number of illicit substances to other students. But having lost her previous protégé a year or so back, Selah has no one to replace her when she graduates. Her luck changes when day student and amateur photographer Paloma Davis (CELESTE O'CONNOR) catches her eye and it's not long before Selah takes her under her wing. But as Paloma gains confidence and after Tarit informs Selah that there's a rat in her faction and that Maxxie -- who's taken an interest in a girl at their school -- is slipping, the Spades ruler must decide what must be done to assert her rule.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10

I've often wondered whether anyone has done a wide-ranging study to determine how the pecking order in high school correlates to success (not to mention happiness) decades later out in the real world. Are the popular students, the top jocks, the leaders of the mean-girl cliques and so on still at the top of the food chain, so to speak? Or did they have their glory days peak early in life and now are just ordinary people who've long since been overtaken by the former geeks, wallflowers and so on?

Of course, students who attend boarding schools -- and thus usually have a wealthy family behind them meaning future pivotal connections -- are more likely to still be up near the top or are mightily disappointed that somehow they still aren't. That's a future view I imagined while watching "Selah and the Spades," a drama that brings to mind any number of other hyper-realistic portrayals of teen life, especially of the "too cool for school" variety such as "Heathers."

As written by Tayarisha Poe, the film quickly sets the scene of the power structure at the Haldwell Boarding School where five student factions -- that rule the day and exist not only to serve the student body's various vices, but also to possess and exert power -- are introduced. The focus of this story -- not surprising considering the title -- is on the Spades, the segment that handles the various illicit substances the boys and girls crave.

They're run by our titular protagonist (Lovie Simone) who's part of the five-student ruling council, but she fashions herself as the ruler, and usually gets her way, much to the chagrin of another faction leader, Bobby (Ana Mulroy Ten), who doesn't like her based on what went down in the recent past. Undeterred, Selah is confident in her every move, word and decision, a reaction -- we soon learn -- that stems from having a domineering mother who makes no bones about deciding what's right for her daughter and her future.

But Selah has bigger fish to fry in that she has no one to carry the mantle upon her graduation. Enter day student and avid amateur photographer Paloma (Celeste O'Connor) who catches the queen's eye and is quickly brought under her wing for some training in the ways of their faction and being a ruler in general. But as that occurs and the power dynamics slowly start to change, we also learn there was a similar protégé in the past about whom no one dares speak. Will the same fate befall the newcomer or will she be able to navigate the waters and come out on top? Will Selah finally stand up to her mom? Will the secret from the past finally be revealed? Tune in next week, same Bat Time, same Bat Channel.

Okay, to be fair, it's not that melodramatically cartoonish and there are no "BAM!" or "POW!" moments. And for a while, it's a decently engaging if quite familiar look at such school dynamics. But beyond that overall lack of novelty, the big issue is that it's quite predictable and starts to unravel at the seams as everything comes to a head in the third act. Even the reveal of the big past secret isn't that surprising, and Poe could have utilized that in such a better way to make us actually concerned about the same fate befalling our new character (and without the earlier awkward inclusion of the old metaphorical story about the frog and scorpion trying to cross a body of water, only to have the critter with the stinger do his thing because it's in his nature -- gee, who could that be referring to here?).

Even so, it's fairly watchable and Poe imbues most of the film's 97-minute running time with enough style to off-set some of the storytelling issues. And considering it's the filmmaker's feature film debut, it certainly bodes well for the potential of whatever her follow-up projects might be, having cut her teeth on this one. "Selah and the Spades" rates as a 5.5 out of 10.




Reviewed April 10, 2020 / Posted April 17, 2020


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