Selah and the Spades

Movie review by
Renee Schonfeld, Common Sense Media
Selah and the Spades Movie Poster Image
Edgy, drug-filled look at dark side of upscale prep school.
  • R
  • 2020
  • 97 minutes

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Kids say

age 14+
Based on 1 review

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

A cautionary tale about the abuse of power and control in (high school) social groups. Explores pressures exerted on teens from their peers and families. Observant take on how unrestricted behavior with few consequences leads to cruelty, authoritarianism, "mob" rule. Shows how quickly innocence may be corrupted and amorality becomes infectious.

Positive Role Models & Representations

A cautionary cast of characters. Insecurity in battle with a need for power leads to bad behavior and lack of moral courage. Main character Selah is a complex combination of the two; she uses her status to menace, control, and withhold approval. At the same time, her vulnerability is made clear, and audiences will likely feel some compassion for her. The only character who stands up to her is on her way to becoming Selah. Limited appearances of adult characters show both ineffectiveness and wrongheaded expectations. Ethnic diversity.


In two sequences, teens show the effects of fierce beatings; they're bloody and bruised. A tone of physical menace, heightened by both music and visual storytelling, is pervasive.


Occasional cursing and profanity: "s--t," "f--k," "hell," "goddamn," "slutty," "keep it in their pants."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Pervasive teen use of drugs and alcohol, including to excess. Illegal dealing and consumption are central plot elements. Even very young kids are shown to be involved in the process of buying and selling drugs and alcohol. Entire sequences are filmed in soft focus with images of kids boozy and stoned.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Selah and the Spades is a drama set in an East Coast private school. First-time writer-director Tayarisha Poe has created a vibrant world that begins and ends at Haldwell School. It's an unsettling place with five underground factions, predominantly led by girls, that divide the power structure. With the exception of a few scenes that include adults or take place off campus -- purposefully, no teacher is ever shown -- the students, especially one powerful senior girl, make and enforce the rules far from the eyes of school authorities. Underage drug use (psychedelics, cocaine, marijuana) and drinking are core elements of the story. Extended scenes show kids partying and getting stoned and drunk, as well as buying and selling both drugs and alcohol. Two teens appear bloodied and badly hurt after off-camera beatings. Occasional profanity includes "f--k," "s--t," "slutty," and "hell." This character-driven movie with serious themes and a pervasive tone of foreboding and menace is best for mature teens and up.

User Reviews

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Teen, 15 years old Written byJordynga24 April 26, 2020

What's the story?

In SELAH AND THE SPADES, the Spades control the import and distribution of drugs in Haldwell School and Selah (Lovie Simone) controls the Spades. It's her senior year. A gifted student and cheer squad leader, Selah is under pressure from a demanding mom (Gina Torres) and an ongoing rivalry with Bobby (Ana Mulvoy Ten), the leader of another faction. Power is the only antidote to Selah's latent insecurity, and she wields it relentlessly. Enter Paloma (Celeste O'Connor), a new junior on scholarship. There's an immediate rapport between Selah and Paloma, and the older girl sees this as an opportunity to groom her successor. Unfortunately, at the same time, Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome), Selah's second-in-command, is underperforming. A romantic relationship has distracted him. Mistakes are made. Bobby's getting more aggressive, and Paloma finds her footing and begins her own stealth campaign. Selah's fragile core is threatened, and she begins to unravel at precisely the wrong time. 

Is it any good?

An impressive blending of both style and substance, along with masterful performances from young actors and stellar camera work, grace this debut film from Tayarisha Poe. In Selah and the Spades, Poe shows a wonderful gift for working with the cast, and an inventive, original way of storytelling. Lovie Simone as Selah and Celeste O'Connor as Paloma are front and center for most of the movie. It's astonishing how much sympathy and rooting interest Simone elicits even when cruel and power-hungry, and how expertly O'Connor covers a steely inner core with gentle submissiveness. Though the story and messages of the piece are disturbing, it's an incisive and original way to portray the power structure inherent in many subcultures.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the drug use portrayed in Selah and the Spades. Are the party scenes more scary than exciting, or the opposite? How does the camera work (visual images) and music magnify the effects of drugs and alcohol?  Were there consequences for the behavior? Were you surprised at the involvement of the very young students in drug distribution?

  • What is your take-away from the last sequence, and in particular, the last shot in the movie? Do you think any of the three teens have been changed by what has happened? If so, how?

  • The first line of end credits read: "A Film by Everyone." Film is a collaborative art, but usually only the director's name appears there. What do you think Tayarisha Poe was saying to her audience? 

  • Paloma is described as a scholarship student. How does this fact impact the story, Paloma's relationships, and the audience's expectations? 

Movie details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love school stories

Themes & Topics

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