Selah and the Spades (2020)

I very much wanted to adore this film, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it never wanted to be a film in the first place. Selah and the Spades opens with a massive exposition dump detailing the kinds of intricate structural hierarchies & historical power struggles that are referenced at the front of multi-volume sci-fi & fantasy novels with corresponding maps of fictional fantasycapes. Except, it’s a very simple high school teen drama about boarding school drug trade. The movie extends the cafeteria-set introductions of various high school cliques that are normally banged out in less than a minute in films like Heathers or Mean Girls into a feature-length tome about warring “factions” and stolen “ledgers.” It’s far less invested in the inner lives of individual characters than it is in the generational passing of the torch from graduating seniors (who care more about maintaining these hierarchies than they do about moving on to college) to their underlings. The movie is so wrapped up in establishing the rules & parameters of its boarding school drug trade markets that it leaves almost no time to establish a reason for the audience to care. It plays more like a backdoor pilot for a tie-in, Degrassi-style TV series than a proper standalone feature film, establishing the rules & boundaries of its universe up front and waiting to flesh out its characters in future episodes.

The titular Selah is a popular honor student at an elite boarding school, overwhelmed both by her parents’ pressure that she academically overachieve and by her responsibilities as the figurehead of her school’s most prestigious drug-trade “faction,” known as the Spades. This premiere season of Selah and the Spades details Selah’s search for a worthy protegee to take over the reins of the Spades’ schoolwide drug ring once she graduates. Meanwhile, other jealous factions—the Bobbies, the Skins, the so-and-so’s—pressure Selah and the Spades to cede their power over the school entirely. The season finale is set at senior prom, of course, and it ends on a cliffhanger guaranteed to have you coming back for the next batch of episodes as soon as they air. I feel as if I’ve put in the work that most long-form “prestige television” dramas require before they “get good” several hours into their runtime, after all the main characters have been sketched out and the battle lines are drawn. Except, I don’t know that I’ll be sticking with this particular high school drug trade series the way I did with HBO’s Euphoria, which was much more interested in the detailed character work, morbid gallows humor, and sensationalist hedonism necessary to make this kind of prerequisite homework feel worthwhile.

Selah and the Spades looks great. This is especially evident in the couple isolated scenes where Selah directly addresses the camera during cheer squad practice, an army of uniformed cheerleader lackeys backing her up as she explains the transgressive pleasure of power in a teen girl’s life. Those isolated moments recall the transcendent cinematic achievements of coming-of-age works like Skate Kitchen & The Fits, but for the most part Selah and the Spades doesn’t feel like cinema at all. It’s pretty, but it’s largely devoid of humor, poetry, atmosphere, or a recognizable sense of danger or transgression. All that’s left is an intricately mapped-out hierarchy of warring high school cliques that I can’t imagine any audience truly caring about unless they are young enough to look up to the characters onscreen as the Cool Kids they hope to meet once they get to high school. Considering how artificial & fantastic this setting can feel, that potential audience might just have to settle for getting to know these kids better when Selah and the Spades gets picked up as the ongoing television or YA novel series it desperately wants to become. Even though I didn’t enjoy the film very much, I do hope that transition into a new medium eventually takes place. It would be a waste of these 100 minutes of self-serious table setting for the show not to be picked up after its pilot episode.

-Brandon Ledet

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