A defining coming-of-age film and stunning directorial debut from Tayarisha Poe, giving voice to the teenage struggle for autonomy in a world that feels simultaneously stifling and yet rich with possibility.
Selah and the Spades follows high school senior Selah Summers, played expertly by Lovie Simone, in her final term at the Haldwell School, an elite day and boarding school buried in the woods of Pennsylvania. Selah sits as head of the Spades, one of the five student factions that control the school and govern the illicit goings on that the students engage in.
However, Selah’s time as ruler nears its end as graduation, and the inevitability of adulthood, approaches, and Selah must find a replacement to succeed her, while fending off power grabs from the other factions, meeting the high personal and academic expectations of her mother and navigating the complexities of being a teenage girl.
Despite the real life setting, Selah and the Spades frequently feels more like a fantasy film. Between the lush green of the setting, the spectacle with which the students go about their lives (masquerade parties, holding court in the woods and elaborate pranks) and the dreamlike score by Aska Matsumiya, the school feels like some magical realm, separate from the real world and associated burdens. We are only reminded that this film takes place in reality when the adult characters appear intermittently to tell the teenagers of their responsibilities and once again place restrictions on them.
This is a film that exists within that liminal space of adolescence, caught between childhood fantasies of kings and queens and the difficult realities and responsibilities of oncoming adulthood; a space where it feels as though anything could happen, bringing both limitless potential and pervasive fear in equal measure.
New girl and scholarship student, Paloma (Celeste O’Connor), serves as the lens through which we gain a glimpse of this strange world, at times literally through her role as photographer for the school paper. Paloma’s carefree nature, quickly adapting to new situations and happily trusting that what happens will be the right thing, contrasts Selah’s rigid control and choreographed public persona, drawing focus to the teenage quest to find agency in the face of uncertain futures.
Ultimately the film is a portrait of control, from the opening quote to the deliberateness of Selah’s every action to the interspersed shots of Selah posing for some imagined camera and the topic of her school project. The film declares this central theme when Paloma is sent to photograph the school’s spirit squad and we see Selah deliver a monologue straight to Paloma and the camera ending with the lines “when you’re 17, you’ve got to grab onto that control wherever you can and hold tight for dear life…they always try and break you down when you’re 17”, a mix of advice for her fellow teens, explanation to those whose memories of 17 have faded and justification for when her attempts to maintain control inevitably go too far.
Selah and the Spades is a distinct and beautifully crafted vision of adolescence, capturing the feeling of being 17 while contextualising it through the gaze of age and experience. A gem of a film that leaves you wanting to see more of what Poe will create.
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