In the exceptionally composed drama “Selah and the Spades,” high school is a battleground where cliques are locked in a struggle for control of the social scene. For the moment, the Spades dominate a fictitious Pennsylvania boarding school called Haldwell, and they are effectively commanded by Selah (Lovie Simone), a senior gifted in strategic maneuvers.
But for all of Selah’s certainty, she is still only a teenager, and a bit blind to how quickly the fortunes of social war can turn. Selah takes on a protégée, Paloma (Celeste O’Connor), a new student and amateur photographer who has yet to be claimed by one of the school’s warring factions. True to archetype, wide-eyed Paloma turns out to be more cunning than Selah anticipates, and Selah must scramble to hold onto her place in the chain of command.
What makes this familiar story special is the filmmaker’s style, all the more impressive as it is the debut feature from Tayarisha Poe, who both wrote and directed the movie. Poe designs her frames with care and sets a languid pace, a relief from the desperate freneticism of many teenage tales. The soft light never lets you forget that these little corporals are just kids, even at the height of their adolescent cruelty. Poe demonstrates a sensitivity to how images can show her perspective, and her precision is reflected even in the casting.
The film provides a fresh reminder that the right person with the right look doesn’t have to work hard to communicate an idea. The young actors here are promising performers, and they deliver their dialogue with confidence and personality. But more important, they have faces — Norma Desmond would approve. Selah looks regal before she ever speaks; Paloma stands out in the crowd even when she’s playing the wallflower.
While there is simple pleasure in watching a movie that is so precisely produced, “Selah and the Spades” aims to do more than look good. It is expressive, using images to make dynamic statements — student leaders on opposing sides of a table become a makeshift war council; Selah swipes her braids over her shoulder and is transformed into a figure of ultimate power.
As her authority slips away, Selah never has to articulate her vulnerability or her fear of losing control. Poe’s camera does the work instead. Even at Selah’s most vicious, with glowing light illuminating her babyish cheeks, we are reminded of Selah’s inexperience. “Selah and the Spades” shimmers with youthful promise, both in front of the camera and behind it.
Selah and the Spades
Rated R for teenage drug use and language. Running time: 1 hour 37 minutes. Stream on Amazon Prime Video.