Review: ‘Selah and the Spades,’ starring Lovie Simone, Celeste O’Connor and Jharrel Jerome

April 17, 2020

by Carla Hay

Celeste O’Connor, Lovie Simone and Jharrel Jerome in “Selah and the Spades” (Photo by Ashley Bean/Amazon Studios)

“Selah and the Spades”

Directed by Tayarisha Poe

Culture Representation: Taking place at an elite co-ed boarding high school in Pennsylvania, the grim drama “Selah and the Spades” has a racially diverse cast of characters (African American and white) who represent the upper-class.

Culture Clash: The rebellious teenagers at the school have intense social rivalries, as they try to hide their law-breaking activities from adults.

Culture Audience: “Selah and the Spades” will appeal mostly to people who like movies about teenagers behaving badly, but most of the characters’ personalities are shallow and underwritten.

Lovie Simone in “Selah and the Spades” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

“Selah and the Spades” is about a group of privileged and rebellious teenagers who weren’t even born when the 1988 dark comedy film “Heathers” was first released, but the basic concept of “Selah and the Spades” draws a lot from the “Heathers” template, without the winning charm of “Heathers.” The idea is the same: A new “outsider” girl enrolls in a high school and finds herself being accepted into the “cool kids” clique at the top of the school’s social ladder, led by a stuck-up “queen bee.” The “new girl” is a quirky, creative type, while the “queen bee” is cold and power-hungry.

One of the main differences between the two movies is that “Heathers” told the story from the perspective of the new girl, while “Selah and the Spades” (the first feature film written and directed by Tayarisha Poe) tells the story from the perspective of the queen bee. Unfortunately, for “Selah and the Spades,” the movie is as humorless and pretentious as its central character. The other main difference between the two movies is that “Heathers” took place in a predominantly white public high school (with people of different social classes), while “Selah and the Spades” takes place at an elite, racially diverse boarding school where the members of the school’s most powerful clique all happen to be African American.

“Selah and the Spades” exists in a world where, unrealistically, race is never mentioned or addressed. It might seem like writer/director Poe did something different or edgy by creating a world where African American students rule the social hierarchy at an elite boarding school, but these African Americans are also the school’s drug dealers, which puts them in the same ghetto mindset and criminal category that numerous other movies and TV shows have put African Americans. In other words, Poe might have changed the setting to a boarding school, but making the central characters drug-dealing African Americans is completely unoriginal and panders to negative stereotypes.

“Selah and the Spades” takes place during the spring season at the fictional Haldwell School for Boarding and Day Students, located in an unnamed U.S. city in Pennsylvania. (The movie was actually filmed in Massachusetts.) An unseen teenage narrator (voiced by Jessie Cannizzaro) explains the social structure of the school’s vice-motivated “underground rebels,” which consists of five factions. At the top of the heap are The Spades, led by 17-year-old high-school senior Selah Summers (played by Lovie Simone) and her right-hand guy Maxxie Ayoade (played by Jharrel Jerome, the Emmy-winning star of Netflix’s “When They See Us”), who are the aforementioned drug dealers.

The Seed, a group of former teacher’s pets who’ve gone rogue and engage in cheating, is led by Tarit Toll Perelstein (played by Henry Hunter Hall). The Skins, whose specialty is gambling, are led by Amber Bolfo (played by Francesca Noel). The Prefects, who make the school’s administration “blissfully unaware” of these students’ illegal activities, are led by Thomas Richard Thomas III, also known as Two Tom (played by Evan Roe). The Bobbies, who throw illegal parties, are led by Roberta “Bobby” Pellegrino (played by Anna Mulvoy Ten).

These five factions (which total about 20 students) have outdoor meetings at a school picnic table, where Selah (pronounced “sell-ah,” perhaps a play on words, since she’s a drug seller) leads the meetings with a haughty, imperious manner. There’s constant friction between Selah and Bobby, who is the only other faction leader to question Selah’s authority. It makes sense that these two faction leaders would butt heads, since The Bobbies are in charge of the parties, which need the drugs that The Spades provide.

There are only two adult characters with significant speaking roles in “Selah and the Spades,” and they both represent despised authority figures in Selah’s life.

The first is  Selah’s demanding mother, Maybelle Summers (played by Gina Torres), the only person in the story who can make Selah feel powerless. Maybelle is the type of parent who, when Selah tells her that she scored a 93 out of 100 percent on a recent test, will ask what happened with the other 7 percent instead of congratulating her daughter on the high score. Maybelle also berates Selah by saying, “You’re starting to sound like your father,” when Selah makes excuses for why she didn’t score 100 on the test. (Selah’s father or stepfather is briefly shown kissing Maybelle goodbye before he heads off to work, and the movie doesn’t show any interaction between him and Shelah.)

Maybelle is also the type of domineering parent who already has Selah’s future planned for her after graduation (a prestigious university, of course), but Selah drops hints that she might want to take a gap year or might not want to go to college at all. When Selah tries to tell her mother that she isn’t really interested in college, Maybelle quickly dismisses the idea and never asks what Selah really wants to do with her life. It’s the time of year where Selah has to decide which university to attend, and she’s been secretly delaying her response to the top school of her mother’s choice. Her mother finds out anyway that Selah hasn’t responded, and, not surprisingly, she’s livid about it.

The irony of Selah’s tense relationship with her mother is that the unpleasant characteristics that Selah dislikes about her mother are the same characteristics that Selah has when she’s around her peers. Selah and her mother are both bossy control freaks who use emotional manipulation, bullying and fear to get people to do what they want. They also don’t like having their plans disrupted, and they have a hard time accepting that people might not always want to go along with their plans.

The other adult authority figure in Selah’s life is Headmaster Banton (played by Jesse Williams), who is generally clueless about what goes on in the school’s “underground” factions. He usually finds out about student shenanigans after the fact. Headmaster Banton ends up cancelling the junior/senior prom because of the student unruliness. In response, the five factions decide to have their own off-campus party, which leads to a series of events that test the limits of some of the movie’s characters.

Before the party happens, there’s a scene in the movie that shows the mischievous side of the five factions, who vote on what what to do for their senior prank. They all decide that their prank, which they plan to do after school hours, will have something to do with water. The prank turns out to be filling hundreds of identical small tumbler glasses with water dyed blue, green and purple, and setting the glasses on all the steps of a long and winding staircase inside a school building.

It’s eye-catching, but it’s not a particularly creative prank. Headmaster Banton arrives with a colleague the next day and finds the stairs can’t be climbed because it’s filled with the water glasses. Apparently, this elite boarding school is too cheap to pay for on-campus night security, which would’ve caught these pranksters in the act.

As for the new girl, she’s Paloma Davis (played by Celeste O’Connor), who’s a sophomore when she enrolls in Haldwell. Paloma (just like Winona Ryder’s Veronica Sawyer character in “Heathers”) starts off as introverted and shy, but then changes after being accepted by the top clique of the “cool kids.” Paloma has an interest in photography, since she’s constantly taking photos of students on her professional camera. She’s in awe of the older kids in the “five factions.” Paloma is thrilled when Selah starts to pay attention to her, and eventually the two girls start to spend more time together. 

Paloma is the only non-senior who was invited to the “water prank.” Curiously, Paloma was openly taking pictures of the students during the prank, which is an odd plot hole to the movie, considering that Selah is the type of paranoid control freak who wouldn’t allow someone to have evidence of who caused the prank.

As explained by the unseen narrator in the beginning of the film, Selah will soon graduate, so she’s looking for someone to continue her “legacy” and take over The Spades after she’s gone. Paloma seems like an ideal candidate for Selah to mentor. But unlike Selah who is selfish and vindictive, Paloma is compassionate toward her fellow students. And she doesn’t always follow Selah’s commands. For example, Selah wants Paloma to take her side in Selah’s feud against Bobby, but Paloma is reluctant to pick a side and has no problem hanging out with Bobby.

Meanwhile, other insecurities fray the bonds of The Spades. Maxxie starts to become jealous that Selah and Paloma have become close, and he fears being replaced as Selah’s most-trusted right-hand person. Selah identifies as asexual and privately tells Paloma that she has no interest in dating. So it’s not much of a surprise that petty Selah becomes envious that Maxxie has become romantically involved with an attractive fellow student named Nuri (played by Nekhebet Juch). Maxxie and Nuri’s romance has distracted Maxxie from all the attention that he used to give Selah.

Like many toxic leaders, Selah is also quick to cruelly punish people she considers to be “disloyal.” There’s an insidious side to her, as it’s made clear to viewers that Selah doesn’t hesitate to have people beat up if they “snitch” or fall behind on their drug debts. There’s also something that happened during her sophomore year that is mentioned several times in the movie as being disruptive to The Spades but a turning point in Selah’s leadership. The full details of what happened are revealed in the movie.

“Selah and the Spades” uses Selah’s controlling mother to explain why Selah is such a deeply unhappy person. It’s this movie’s attempt to make Selah more sympathetic (with the predictable scenes of Selah crying after being bullied by her mother), but it’s not to enough to explain why Selah (who also has an awful personality) has become the “queen bee” of the “cool kids.”

Selah is an empty shell of a person. Antiheroes who become leaders usually have some kind of charisma that attracts people to them. However, Selah has no charisma or any particular talent (if she has any passions or ambitions, they’re not shown in the movie), and she doesn’t appear to be the richest student in the school, so it’s not adequately explained in the movie why people would want to blindly follow her.

It is not unrealistic that the teenage characters in the movie talk like they’re 10 years older than the ages of their characters (such as when they use a phrase like “pray tell”), because these are supposed to be well-educated teenagers. The problem is that even though the movie tries to make Selah look like she’s wise beyond her years, in actuality, she has the emotional intelligence of a slug.

There’s also a preachy part in the movie where the Selah character, in the middle of cheerleader practice, stops and talks directly to the camera to go off on a rant about how people want to control the bodies of 17-year-old girls, who should have the right to say, do and dress however they want without being judged sexually. This is the only time that the Selah character “breaks the fourth wall” and talks directly to the audience.

It’s a very pretentious and misguided part of the film, not just because “breaking the fourth wall” doesn’t fit with the rest of the movie, but also because this attempt to make Selah look like an enlightened feminist falls very flat. At the point in the movie where Selah goes off on this rant, viewers already know she’s a self-entitled brat who’s also a drug dealer. It’s a little hard to take her preaching seriously, considering how morally bankrupt and hateful she is.

As the loathsome Selah, Simone does an adequate job at portraying someone who is supposed to be written as a complicated person, but she’s really transparent and fairly two-dimensional. The real discovery is O’Connor, who goes through a metamorphosis as Paloma, and gives by far the best performance in the movie.

Unfortunately, most of the characters, except for Selah and Paloma, are written as vague sketches. The movie could’ve been more interesting if it showed more of the personalities of the other faction leaders, so viewers can get an idea of the social dynamics that caused Selah to rise to the leadership position.

It’s not about Selah being likeable. It’s about her being fascinating enough to explain why she’s the “queen bee” of the school’s social hierarchy. Because “Selah and the Spades” takes the misstep of having a central character with such a dead personality (which leads to a lot of dull and predictable scenes), this movie that is clearly inspired by “Heathers” won’t ever be considered a cult classic like “Heathers.”

Amazon Prime Video premiered “Selah and the Spades” on April 17, 2020.