May 6, 2020
On Selah and the Spades, The Half of It, and Bad Education
and the Spades, this reasonably universal truth is particularly felt. The student body is rigidly divided into five distinct “factions” who antagonize each other like crime families. The titular Selah, who is played by a mesmerizing Lovie Simone, helms the Spades, which run the school’s drug operations. (Not all of the factions have this same criminal undercurrent: while one called the Sea has on lock a streamlined cheating operation, another, the Bobbys, are literally a drama club with a party-planning habit.)
Selah and the Spades homes in on the eponymous character, who moonlights as the cheer team’s captain and who is secretly harboring intense pressure at home to academically triumph. (“What happened to the other seven points?” Selah’s strict mother, portrayed by Gina Torres, asks when Selah gets a 93 percent on a calculus test.) Because of the uncertainty of her future, and her academic insecurities, Selah has unhealthily latched on to her role of the purposefully detached organizer. It’s not the monetary benefit the job affords that appeals to her — it’s the indomitable sense of power. When other facets of her life feel scarily ambiguous, she’s in total command as the Spade-in-chief. “That’s a mistake the whole world makes: They never take girls seriously,” Selah says to an underling. She conspicuously relishes that as a 17-year-old, she’s not only taken as seriously as an authority figure by her peers but is ultimately feared by them.
Selah’s obsession with her power, and her fear of losing it, drives the film. So does her fledgling, quickly intense friendship with new student Paloma (Celeste O’Connor). Selah, a senior, thinks that Paloma, a younger, artistically minded introvert, could be a suitable successor as the Spades’ leader. Paloma reminds Selah of her sophomore self. But although she knows grooming a protégé is a necessary step if the Spades are to continue its operations, it’s hard for Selah to handle. Eventually, almost disastrously, she takes out her anxieties about the future on Paloma, who acclimates to the school’s clique system after a few months.
It has taken a long time for Selah and the Spades to come to our screens. (After debuting to rave reviews at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, it’s now available for Amazon Prime subscribers to stream.) And it's the product of a long gestation. Poe began to develop the film as far back as 2014, originating as a wide-ranging multimedia project composed of short stories, movies, and other forms. Around its inception, she had been working in a digital tech lab, suffering from dissatisfaction.
The resulting feature shows us a writer-director so thrillingly in touch with her artistic approach that, even though the film falters in a lot of places, we finish the movie enthusiastic about where Poe is going to go next. Her voice, unusual for a debuting filmmaker, is like a sheen on every frame; Poe’s visual storytelling is preternaturally confident and exciting to watch. With the assistance of cinematographer Jomo Fray, she gives formative experiences music-video-like pomp. (This isn’t meant to be pejorative, as music-video comparisons in non-music-video-writing tend to be.) Poe and Fray lend superficially fleeting moments — a day out in the woods, a party, a cheer practice, a play rehearsal — the sense of grandeur we as teens graft on to moments that feel touched by adultlike independence.
Poe’s visual instincts are so strong that we can tell that the areas which show less assurance — specifically the uneven dialogue (sometimes an uneasy marriage of slam poetry cadence and presentational broadness, sometimes unvarnished and personal, like in the brief scenes where Selah is alone with her mother) and the tonal shifts — will catch up down the line. With Selah and the Spades, Poe is just getting started.
Brick (2005), recognizes, and then ups the stakes of, the obvious: that a high school can be a microcosm of larger society. Mean Girls
functioned, among other things, as a sharp, frequently melodramatic allegory for class disparity. Brick effectively showed what could happen if a filmmaker combined the high-school movie with standard-fare detective noir. Poe is even more audacious with Selah and the Spades. What would happen if she merged the conventions of the high-school feature and the Mafia film?
Poe’s movie is almost exclusively set on the grounds of Haldwell, a prim boarding school in the Pennsylvanian woodlands. For many of its students, studies come second fiddle to one’s social standing. Such a reality is obviously common for most high-schoolers in general, but for the characters of Selah
elah and the Spades (2020), Tayarisha Poe’s promising directorial debut, is a high-school movie that, in the tradition of features like Mean Girls (2004) and
Celeste O'Connor, Lovie Simone, and Jharrel Jerome in 2020's Selah and the Spades.
he Half of It, which was released on Netflix the other day, is yet another romantic comedy inspired by Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac (1897). The latter’s conceit has turned into such a go-to formula
for the rom-com, it’s as if you could buy it in bulk. If one is to click Cyrano’s “disambiguation” button on Wikipedia, seen are miles-long lists not only constituting all the direct adaptations but also all the romantic comedies that have ripped it off. It can be hard, more than a century later, to make its familiar shenanigans smell fresh. Just look at 2009’s The Ugly Truth, which was received so uniformly poorly upon release by critics that most of its reviews read like moans in word form.
High-school movie The Half of It isn’t even Netflix’s first Cyrano de Bergerac. (That achievement belongs to another high-school movie, 2018’s Sierra Burgess is a Loser, which was one of many films of the last couple of years trying to make Noah Centineo happen.) But it doesn’t feel worn out like so many of the new Cyranos and Cyrano-adjacents do even when they’re pretty good; it subverts rom-com expectations when it has the chance to.
The Half of It, like all Cyrano lore, involves a game of deception in the name of love. In this iteration, which is set in the fictional nowheresville Washington town of Squahamish (a combination of Snohomish and Sammamish?), a doltish but kindhearted jock, Paul (Daniel Diemer), hires class brains Ellie (Leah Lewis) to write love letters for him to his crush, school “it” girl Aster (Alexxis Lemire). Ellie has been writing her classmates’ essays for years; at first glance, this is merely an expansion of her fairly lucrative business. But it’s more personal than Paul realizes. Ellie is a closeted lesbian and has long had feelings for Aster — ones that go beyond Paul’s facile appreciation of his desired paramour for being simply “smart and pretty.”
Predictability in The Half of It doesn’t engender eye rolls — quite the opposite. These characters, and these performers, are easy to like, and as an effect we want them to experience the rom-com platitudes that haven’t yet curdled. Writer-director Alice Wu, with her first project since 2004’s Saving Face, sneakily does most of her character development through text exchanges. In common, for both Ellie and Aster, who especially share an interest in art, is that they feel cloistered by expectations and the limitations of their small town (as most ambitious, city-dreaming high-schoolers are wont to feel). They note, more than once, that this is the first time they’ve really felt understood. The film captures how momentous a text conversation can seem — messages appear on screen like glowy set decorations — with seamlessness unusual in the movies.
The tenderness and precision of Wu’s writing don’t cut off at its romance. Particularly touching is the friendship that develops between Paul and Ellie and Ellie’s relationship with her father. As the deception wears on, Paul, who isn’t planning on going to college and will likely inherit his family’s sausage business, shows that he genuinely wants to get to know his decidedly worlds-away ghostwriter. The film gracefully handles a moment, late in the movie, where he is made to rethink his conservative ideologies. Ellie and her father, Edwin (Collin Chou), mostly watch old movies (“every movie has a best part,” Ellie’s late mother used to say) together in their downtime, speaking little. You can sense that they are still mourning the death of their matriarch. A melancholy additionally lingers on account of the fact that Edwin has a Ph.D in engineering but, since immigrating to Squahamish from China (Squahamish was supposed to be a “starting-off point”), he hasn’t been able to get out of his stationmaster job. There is a great family drama that could be made out of what they’ve endured.
I do wish there were more insight into Aster’s disaffections (mainly that the personae of the popular girl and church girl feel like albatrosses). But, to paraphrase critic Christy Lemire, that Aster is a more swooned-over than fully realized figure is perhaps the point. Wu packs in enough details, however fleeting, about her subjects that The Half of It could within reason be elongated into a TV show. The narcotic, atmospheric Washington setting (the movie was shot in several woodsy New York villages) only further pushes such ideas.
I have only a couple of qualms with the movie. It takes too long for the subterfuge to be revealed; there’s even an unnecessary and long detour into a talent show. And once it has become clear, at the end of The Half of It, that Ellie’s feelings for Aster are requited, we don’t get the good movie kiss we’ve been waiting for. We get an almost transitory one instead. The movie has so successfully executed the build-up; on top of all the complicated plotting on Ellie and Paul’s parts, there are not one but two excruciatingly awkward “dates” between the latter and Aster that belabor the point. Why not include a climactic romantic gesture that felt more substantial? Still, getting worked up over the detail is, in a way, a testament to how much Wu gets us to feel for these characters. I hope there isn't another 16-year gap between this and her next movie.
he film roles for which Hugh Jackman is best known — Wolverine in the X-Men movies, Jean Valjean in Les Misérables (2011), J.T. Barnum in The Greatest Showman (2017) — are undergirded by their bigness.
As noted recently by the Vulture critic Alison Willmore, he’s a performer who has “always been better at projecting toward the back of the house than scaling down into naturalism.” So it’s a pleasure to see Jackman in something like Cory Finley’s for the most part excellent Bad Education (2019), which allows him to step back and, as a result, do some of the best work of his career.
The movie, which recently premiered on HBO, is a dramatization of what’s touted on Wikipedia as “the largest public school embezzlement in American history.” In the film, Jackman plays the head schemer — well-coiffed superintendent Francis A. “Frank” Tassone — and a wonderfully sardonic Allison Janney portrays his criminal second-in-command, business administrator Pamela Gluckin. For years, Tassone and Gluckin skimmed money out of their indubiously high-performing district’s budget for themselves. The feature begins just a little before they were found out in the early aughts. (The ploy was first reported by a student newspaper; in the movie, the journalist who did the digging is embodied by a composite character played by a terrific Geraldine Viswanathan.)
The feature is primarily based on a New York magazine article that ran in the mid-2000s. So it makes sense that the film unfolds like a glossy print story that gets more shocking the more it wears on. When we’re first introduced to the leads, we’re quickly charmed by them. Then screenwriter Mike Makowsky starts to pull back the curtain, not just evincing the deception in a way that makes us feel akin to an investigator but also showing that our being charmed by Tassone and Gluckin was perhaps just another example of their ability to manipulate. Bad Education also gets right, especially with its allusions to the surrounding neighborhoods and the desires of the district parents, the inequity inherent to the education system, and incisively mocks the casual evils of its characters.
But the movie is so concerned with how it delivers salacious facts and discoveries that it doesn’t altogether meaningfully probe the motivations of its subjects. Why Tassone and Gluckin were inspired to steal is only superficially addressed. Tassone, believing that he had earned the right to live like a profligate CEO, was simply image-obsessed — always dieting, getting cosmetic procedures. He’s depicted as being by his very nature deceitful. He told acquaintances and colleagues, for example, that his wife died several years ago, continually living as a bachelor as an act of grief. In actuality, he had a civil partner in one town and a younger male lover down in Las Vegas, both of whom he housed with stolen funds and both of whom didn’t know about the other for years. Gluckin was drawn by the thrills of performative affluence, too; she also claimed to want to provide for her family.
But such explanations feel in themselves like purchasable material; we don’t sense that we have gotten to the crux of either person’s essence by the end of the movie. Makowsky invokes the facts but doesn’t pick at them. Tassone remains an enigma, though perhaps his seeming sort of empty was intentional. Jackman and Janney are so good in Bad Education that they help gloss over what feel like weaknesses in the writing. But the movie’s effectiveness at being narratively engaging seems to have come at the cost of definitive characterizations.
Selah and the Spades: B
The Half of It: B+
Bad Education: B+