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

Bring It On (2000)

EPSON MFP image

fourhalfstar

campstamp

The cartoonish cheerleader comedy Bring It On is one of those films I watched way too many times as young lad merely because it was one of the few movies my sister & I could agree on (other titles on that short list included Clueless & My Cousin Vinny). Nostalgia can be a blinding force when it comes to judging art on its own merits, though, so I was pleased to discover on a recent drunken night after a friend’s wedding that Bring It On still holds up as a high-functioning farce. This cinematic time capsule fits in with its eras finest high school comedies: movies like Clueless, Drop Dead Gorgeous, 10 Things I Hate About You, and But, I’m a Cheerleader!. Although there’s an imperfect choice of POV that somewhat weakens its central message (more on that in a minute), Bring It On is wholly committed to its camp value in an endearing way, moves at a breeze of a swift/efficient pace, and has its heart in the right place even if it missed out on making a solid socio-political statement. It also opens with one of the greatest musical numbers ever put to film, a two minute-long performance I could gladly watch into infinity.

Instead of adopting the typical ugly duckling/beautiful swan makeover story structure that dominated much of the 90s high school movie landscape (spoofed recently in the underappreciated Mae Whitman comedy The DUFF), Bring It On follows a traditional sports movie formula and tracks the progress of a Californian cheer squad as they work their way up to the all-important, ESPN-televised “Nationals.” Although the film does include a superfluous will-they-won’t-they love triangle, it’s at heart about ethics in cheer choreography. Bring It On‘s head cheerleader, cinema’s most prominent Torrance (brought to bubbly life by my lifelong celebrity crush Kirsten Dunst), deals with the fallout of the discovery that her former captain had been stealing routines from an predominantly black school in East Compton. Crushed by the betrayal, Torrance has to reconcile with the fact that her “entire cheerleading career is a lie.” When reminded that it’s only cheerleading, Torrence retorts, “I am only cheerleading.” It’s true, too. Her squad had become her sole identity, a concern that overrides any anxieties about her education or the boys chasing after her. (I particularly enjoyed the way that latter conflict was deflated with the line, “Do us all a favor and get over yourself and tell her how you really feel.”)

I’ll give kudos to Bring It On for making its romance plot a backseat concern in relation to a sports movie conflict involving white teens ripping off black artists without recognition. It’s kind of a gutsy choice for an innocuous teen comedy from nearly two decades ago. Where the film falters is in failing to give said black cheerleading squad much to do in a story about their own artistic exploitation. A Bring It On told from the POV of the East Compton Clovers would most likely serve this story of artistic integrity & cheerleading ethics much better. From the mostly white, well-to-do Toros’ perspective, it instead become a story about white guilt & “trying to make it right.” As much as the film could’ve handled its socio-political inquiries better, though, it does find a way to completely sidestep any shameless white knighting and its Big Competition conclusion is a satisfying end for both the Toros & the Clovers in a genuinely earned moment of feel-good movie magic.

Although I’m focusing on the implications of Bring It On‘s narrative here, what makes the film such a winning success is not its sense of storytelling, but its deliriously saccharine sense of humor. I get a dreamlike sense of an overwhelming sugar rush in this film, one matched only by titles like Josie & The Pussycats and Cool as Ice. Ant-Man director Peyton Reed establishes a punishing sense of rhythm in the film’s pacing, delivering campy humor in a nonstop barrage of rapidfire dialogue set to a “You Wouldn’t Steal a DVD”/Run Lola Run style of pop music production. UCB co-founder Ian Roberts drops by as a painfully corny/horny hired gun choreographer who derails the Toros with a Fosse-obsessed “spirit fingers” routine. There’s also plenty of delightfully inane cheerleading humor like in the line, “This is not a democracy; it’s a cheerocracy,” and and in the concept of “cheer sex” (eyefucking a member of the audience during a routine). Despite a stray joke or three threatening to indulge in body shaming or sexual assault and a pair of wallet chain-sporting nu metal bozos, Bring It On never fully sours on its cheery worldview. It manages to feel like a live action cartoon in details like rigorous.toothbrushing, religious reverence for something called a “cheer stick”, and a disgusting younger brother character straight out of Teen Witch. It’s thoroughly endearing & more than a little overwhelming in is high fructose energy, a tone that fits its subject nicely.

It’s a little shallow to say so, but I really do believe Bring It On‘s entire argument for cult following legitimacy as a campy delight hinges on its opening dream sequence cheer routine. It’s a beautiful, aggressive, surreal splash of cold water that happily indulges in its own inanity, as typified in the line, “Hate us because we’re beautiful, but we’ don’t like you either. We are cheerleaders.” It’s as iconic of an opening as film could ever ask for even before it reaches its Golden Age of Hollywood musical number conclusion. Bring It On might’ve stumbled in how it handled some of the political implications of its narrative (mostly in the diminished role of the Clovers), but it’s a wildly confident camp comedy that finds its own surreal voice in its manic cheerleading humor. If you need any proof that the film is worth a look, I urge you to watch the opening number in the clip below. It’s the same kind of cinematic perfection that won me over with “Floop’s Floogies” in Spy Kids, a perfect encapsulation of what makes the film such a rare, bizarre treat.

Side Note: How weird is it that the film’s titular line is actually “Bring It.” and not “Bring it on.”? It’s a very minor distinction, but it’s one I find fascinating, not only because the studio likely found that the one word difference tested better for some strange reason, but also because the line has been culturally altered by various & plentiful spoofs that read it as “Bring it on.” Really makes you think.

-Brandon Ledet