While too superficial to take the high school movie genre to exceptional places, “Selah and the Spades” is entertaining enough to satisfy as it follows a graduation-bound senior preparing to vacate her post as the head of one of five cliques that operate much like mobster families.
The dramedy begins streaming Friday on Amazon Prime.
Writer-director Tayarisha Poe, making her feature debut, brings fresh elements in this tale of teenage power and politics, which suggests fare ranging from “Heathers” to Celine Sciamma’s “Girlhood,” with the Corleone clan acting as advisers.
Poe sets the action at a Pennsylvania boarding school, focusing on the upper tiers of its social strata. Each of the five student factions specialize in an illicit enterprise, mob-style wars, and zero tolerance for snitches.
Selah Summers (Lovie Simone) heads the Spades, the most powerful group that supplies students with drugs and booze.
Selah, 17, excels at everything from advanced math to cheerleading, but struggles internally. She can’t communicate with her demanding mother (Gina Torres) or live up to her own determination to be perfect.
She’s uneasy about her upcoming graduation, because she’ll have to relinquish her power and enter a world where she’ll be a nobody.
Ruling her domain iron-fistedly, Selah abandons Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome), her right-hand man and best friend. He’s neglecting his duties, she says, because his new girlfriend is distracting him.
Selah finds a new bestie in Paloma (Celeste O’Connor), her protégé and handpicked successor. Paloma initially idolizes Selah, but she soon sees Selah’s flaws and, with increasing confidence, begins asserting her independence. Selah’s not pleased.
These feelings, along with an intensifying rivalry between Selah and another faction leader (Ana Mulvoy Ten), bring out Selah’s dark aspects. On — when else? — prom night, the situation climaxes.
Poe merely skims the surface of the darker material, which includes a former student’s unexplained disappearance, and that can be frustrating. Sometimes, the film seems unsure whether it wants to be a fun R-rated clique flick or a serious exploration of kids and power.
The purportedly meaningful bond that forms between Selah and Paloma isn’t as affecting as the teen female friendships in “Lady Bird” or “Booksmart,” meanwhile.
Yet the film still contains enough spark and novelty to succeed as stay-at-home entertainment.
Poe reaps intrigue and comic mileage from the resemblance of the school cliques to organized-crime families.
Poe also deserves credit for presenting a boarding-school setting featuring lots of nonwhite faces and for omitting the familiar teen sexcapades from the picture.
As for Selah, though we wish Poe had more deeply explored her troubling qualities, she’s a formidable presence, both as a genre-style queen bee and as a forward-thinking young woman who isn’t interested in dating and blasts society for not taking girls seriously.
* * *
“Abe” is tasty, but does not satisfy
In “Abe,” a New York City kid tries to bring about peace in his home by cooking tasty fusion food for his ever-feuding Israeli and Palestinian grandparents. That appealing premise and some enticing culinary imagery give this dramedy family and foodie appeal, but don’t expect too much beyond that.
The film becomes available Friday on digital platforms and VOD.
Brazilian documentarian Fernando Grostein Andrade (“Wandering Heart”), working from a screenplay by Lameece Issaq and Jacob Kader, celebrates multiculturalism and world cuisine in his English-language narrative-feature debut, which follows a boy chef as he explores his roots and palate.
Twelve-year-old Abe (Noah Schnapp) has a cooking blog and lives in Brooklyn with his secular mom and dad (Dagmara Dominczyk, Arian Moayed), who have Israeli Jewish and Palestinian Muslim backgrounds. At the dinner table, Abe’s two sets of grandparents, who personify Middle East tensions with little subtlety, argue incessantly about Palestinian-Israeli issues and what they view as Abe’s lack of a proper religious upbringing. The animosity upsets Abe.
For liberation, Abe uninvitedly visits the kitchen of Brazilian chef Chico (Seu Jorge), who specializes in fusion street cuisine. At first, Chico tells Abe to scram, but after assigning Abe dish-washing duties, Chico begins coaching the boy in how to blend flavors.
Stoked, Abe starts examining his own food heritage and makes a fusion dinner for his family. With the feast he serves on Thanksgiving (the holiday when dysfunctional movie families explode), he hopes to inspire harmony among his kin. Good luck, kid.
The movie has the feel-good vibe that many are currently seeking, and, with its worthy theme of cross-cultural connection and its likeable young star, it makes for agreeable family viewing.
Yet overall, the film misses nearly as often as it charms.
The drama unfolds predictably and delivers little emotional impact. Surface-level storytelling and the sitcommy nature of the family dynamics prevent Abe’s journey from truly moving us. The quarreling grandparents get tedious fast.
On the positive side, food shots and montages pleasure the taste buds.
Review: Abe ★★½
Starring: Noah Schnapp, Seu Jorge, Dagmara Dominczyk, Arian Moayed
Directed by: Fernando Grostein Andrade
Written by: Lameece Issaq and Jacob Kader
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
* * *
“The Booksellers” certain to charm bibliophiles
“The Booksellers,” a documentary by D.W. Young, immerses us in New York City’s rare-book community, whose members regard the book as civilization’s most exquisite achievement and the antiquarian bookstore as akin to the mountaintop.
We meet sellers, buyers, collectors, and scholars, collectively, eccentrics, obsessives, cat lovers, and surprisingly elegant sorts. Young’s interviewees, who include Susan Orlean, Fran Lebowitz, Gay Talese, and numerous lesser known but significant believers discuss topics ranging from book fairs to book burning to the fate of books in the age of Kindle. Their devotion to their trade, and their love for their dusty old books, comes across movingly.
Some enthuse over prized volumes such as first editions of classics, an ancient book on fossil fish. “Eat your heart out, ‘Playboy,’” says the owner of the latter, displaying its centerfold and accompanying ichthyological illustration.
Young’s detail-filled doc may bore those uninterested in dust jackets. But bibliophiles and the simply curious should find themselves enlightened and charmed.
The film opens Friday in the virtual cinemas of the Vogue and Balboa theaters.
Review: The Booksellers ★★★
Starring: Dave Bergman, Rebecca Romney, Susan Orlean, Fran Lebowitz
Directed by: D.W. Young
Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes