In “Selah and the Spades,” it’s life inside a bubble for the privileged and pretty students at the Haldwell School, a private prep school nestled in the woodlands.
Only thing is, the atmosphere inside that bubble is poisoned with shocking violence, drug and alcohol abuse, petty feuds and nasty rivalries between warring factions. These teenagers might look sweet and innocent, but they’re in a dark world that’s like “The Sopranos” meets “Mean Girls” — with a slice of “Macbeth” on the side.
This Amazon original film marks writer-director Tayarisha Poe’s feature debut, and what a debut this is. The screenplay packs a punch and a sharp bite, the visuals are dazzling, the camerawork captures the fever-dream madness of the story — and the performances from the young cast (and a few solid veterans) are spot-on.
Lovie Simone is the beautiful and popular and calculatingly cold Selah, a cheerleader and the 17-year-old head of the Spades, one of the powerful cliques that control various illicit and sometimes illegal business in and around the school. The Spades control “the booze, powders, pills, fun,” as Selah puts it. (When they open a massive trunk, it glows golden with a light reminiscent of the briefcase in “Pulp Fiction,” but we’re allowed to look inside this time, and we see piles of pot, pills, cocaine and cash.) Meanwhile, the Skins handle “anything you can gamble on,” while the Bobbys are drama geeks who stage elaborate pop-up parties where just about anything goes.
The cheerleading squad wears tight sweaters and short skirts, but as Selah explains, that’s THEIR choice. “When you’re 17, you’ve gotta grab control wherever you can. They always try to break you down when you’re 17.”
Jharrel Jerome (“Moonlight”) is Selah’s longtime best friend and lieutenant who will do anything for her. Anna Mulvoy Ten is Bobby, a wisp of a drama geek who looks like she walks around singing peppy show tunes all day long but is Selah’s biggest rival and most immediate threat. Celeste O’Connor is Paloma, a sophomore transfer who becomes Selah’s newest protégé. (We hear references to Selah’s previous pet project, a girl named Tila who is no longer on campus. When we finally learn what happened to her — sheesh. You don’t want to mess with Selah.) Gina Torres has a memorable one-scene cameo as Selah’s demanding mom, who wonders what happened to the other seven points when Selah scores a 93 on an exam, and tells her she’ll be going to a rigid private university because “they’ll put you in your place [and] save you from yourself.”
As tensions escalate between the warring factions, the school headmaster (Jesse Williams) always seems a step behind in his efforts to quell the craziness. In a PA address, he notes how these students are supposed to be exceptional and says, “We have an expectation you’ll bring out the best in each other and not waste yourselves, maybe not squander all of your potential on childish games. Do better … be better.”
Good luck with that, chief.
Writer-director Poe ladles on the references to “Macbeth” and delivers a number of memorable and original set pieces, e.g., hand-held camerawork darting all around a party that’s bathed in vibrant tones of blues and reds, while the soundtrack incongruously plays the old cornball hit “Shadow Waltz” by the Hi-Lo’s. “Selah and the Spades” is a stylish, dark, surrealistic look at the pressures put on teens by their parents, their peers and themselves, and how insecurities and jealousies can fuel some monstrous behavior. These kids have some seriously Cruel Intentions.