The unique name Selah belongs to the lead characters in two new movies, the high school drama “Selah and The Spades” and the atmospheric coming-of-age parable “The Other Lamb.” Both are written and directed by women - and each film is anchored by terrific performances from the young actresses portraying the Selahs, girls fighting for agency while trapped in a cult - one literal, one figurative. For Lovie Simone’s Selah Summers in “Spades,” that sect is a Pennsylvania boarding school where she’s a scheming queen bee vying for power and striving for perfection. Raffey Cassidy’s Selah in “The Other Lamb” belongs to an all-female religious cult under the control of The Shepherd (“Game of Thrones” hunk Michiel Huisman).
Rookie writer-director Tayarisha Poe sets “Selah and the Spades” (dropping April 17 on Amazon Prime) at an elite school where five “factions” ride roughshod over the student body. Selah controls the most dominant group, the Spades, who supply the booze, benzos, cocaine, Adderall and other “party favors.” It, along with the Sea, Skins, Bobbies and Prefects, conduct clandestine meetings around a picnic table where they hammer out details of a rogue prom, decide the senior prank and strike treaties and deals like the five major crime families from “The Godfather” by way of “Gossip Girl.”
Things get sticky when Selah’s most reliable consigliere (“Moonlight’s” Jharrel Jerome) gets a girlfriend. Add to that Selah’s preoccupation with her legacy (who will she entrust to run the Spades after graduation?) and an overbearing mother complaining about her 93 on a calculus test. “What happened to the other seven points?” she asks.
Normally cool and confident, Selah’s about to combust until she meets Paloma (Celeste O’Connor), the school newspaper shutterbug she takes under her wing. Selah lets the sophomore accompany her to senior parties. They discuss drugs, popularity, sex and dating. When Paloma grows a bit too big for her britches, Selah takes action.
Poe creates a stylish world where high schoolers act like they’re in their 30’s amid wet-blanket adults (Jesse Williams plays the headmaster) who don’t register. It’s a bit jarring, given this is a modern teen flick (it uses millennial slang like “extra”) in which no one relies on technology to communicate - no iPhone, no SnapChat. Instead, they talk to face to face and pass notes in class. That doesn’t ring true in this day and age, just ask any parent of a teenager. The light-on-plot script is brimming with clichés, overt foreshadowing and one-dimensional characters delivering a line of gossip before scramming. Rows between rivals arrive right on schedule.
Those are minor complaints amidst Poe’s bigger ideas. As her film opens, Poe locks her camera on Selah, decked out in a green-and-white spirit squad uniform, sporting braids dangling to her waist. She speaks authoritatively to the camera: “When you’re 17, you gotta grab control where you can get it.” Some call that rebellion while others see it as empowerment.
Adolescent awakening and revolt are also at the heart of Malgorzata Szumowska’s “The Other Lamb,” currently available via video on demand. The acclaimed Polish director crafts a Selah (Cassidy) of another time and place, but is still fighting for personal power. The movie has a preoccupation with menstrual blood and isn’t for the sheepish. There’s not much dialogue or story, either. It’s very primal and dream-like, a string of striking images randomly edited together.
Cassidy, however, is a standout among the creepiness, lending the film grit and confidence, as Selah builds her nerve to challenge authority and to ask questions about her late mother. The more she’s hushed, the more she digs in, but for a short 90-minute movie it feels like a slog. Szumowska doesn’t have a light touch, either. Her film is a takedown of patriarchal societies eager to put Baby in the corner. You have to be asleep (I wanted to be) to miss that point. It’s not a matter of if, but when Huisman, the sexually charged messiah figure, turns his leer toward Selah. That’s one look that could kill. Let that be the lesson.
Dana Barbuto may be reached at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
“Selah and The Spades”
Cast: Celeste O’Connor, Lovie Simone and Jharrel Jerome. Availabe on Amazon Prime.
(R for teen drug content, and language.)
“The Other Lamb”
Cast: Raffey Cassidy, Michiel Huisman, Denise Gough. Available via video on demand.