REVIEW: ‘Selah and the Spades’ tackles intense themes in coming-of-age drama

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Lovie Simone as the titular Selah in "Selah and the Spades."

Walking through the halls of The Haldwell School for Boarding and Day School, students of the 5 factions lurk in the social shadows, wait for a reason to pounce in order to preserve their power and control over the student body, and remain out of sight and out of mind of the headmaster.

The perfectly polished Headmaster Banton — played by Jesse Williams — scans his hallways for trouble and returns to the leather throne in his office to interrogate students for intel on the whereabouts of the 5 factions to no avail.

There are The Seas, The Skins, The Bobbies, The Prefects and The Spades — each faction doing its part to manage and maintain social equilibrium at the school. But “Selah and the Spades” is not the average teen drama.

Having its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2019, “Selah and the Spades” is the first full-length film with a predominantly Black cast and crew for emerging director and writer Tayarisha Poe. She did not hold back, and it shows in the psychologically thrilling script and plot structure.

Poe tackles the high-caliber themes of fraud, gambling, underage drinking, substance abuse, assault and harassment by making each crime a value to each of the 5 factions. Not only are these themes seen in the film, but they are engaged in realistically, which reveals the truth in the underlying problems of social hierarchy and hazing amongst young adults.

The students trade money for drugs, beat each other up for being disloyal and manipulate each other in order to steal the spotlight. And posters in the hallways of the school read, “Factions are gangs. Gangs are against school policy.”

All of this is in an effort to maintain control in an otherwise turbulent world and to manage the struggles of being a young woman, Black, LGBTQ+ or being judged for every and any other uncontrollable factor that makes a person human.

Through the casting, costume design and cinematography, the film draws audiences into the world of the main character Selah — played by Lovie Simone — a powerhouse woman who does not take no for an answer. Growing up under the supervision of a controlling mother, Selah adopts some of the behaviors of her mother to become a very biting, unrelenting person who must be loved yet feared by all.

Because it’s Selah’s senior year and she will be leaving the Spades for college, she is looking to find the right person to pass on her legacy.

When she meets the quiet but self-aware Paloma, Selah takes her under her wing and grooms her to become the next ringleader of the Spades. But even when Paloma realizes what’s expected of her, she gives in to the seductive nature of Selah’s manipulation, causing them both more internal conflict than expected.

By the end of the film, Paloma puts together a way to save the senior prom and leads the factions to host their own in the middle of the night off-campus. Out of jealousy and insecurity, Selah drugs Paloma in order to take her power back.

“Selah and the Spades” is a phenomenal rollercoaster ride, leaving the shocking ending up for total viewer interpretation.

Power and control are not everything unless it’s the only thing a person has, and this film tells the story of someone who cannot let go of that idea.

“Selah and the Spades” is not only revealing of the darkness carried in the hearts of struggling teenagers and young adults, but this coming-of-age film functions as a warning and a call to action for all viewers to self-reflect, to consider what they know to be right over wrong and to lean into their ability to be compassionate, loving and understanding without expecting anything in return.

The familiar storyline of power struggles viewers know and love sheds light on key issues facing youth today. Poor home lives, no access to mental health care and addiction are all factors that can have a negative impact and serious consequences to young people’s high school and college experiences as well as their physical and emotional wellbeing.

Even though Poe’s writing and direction are done with such careful attention to detail in the plot, script and character dynamics, because of the adult themes of this film, it could have started with a disclaimer and ended with resources for people struggling with substance abuse and mental health concerns as a way to to address and acknowledge the intensity of the film’s content and provide that information to those who need it most.

Film has the power to inform, to inspire and to incite powerful realizations in viewers, and Poe’s “Selah and the Spades” does each beautifully.

“Value your time,” Selah said. “It really is the only thing we got that is worth anything at all.”