Producers: Lauren McBride, Drew Houpt, Lucas Joaquin, Jill Ahrens and Tayarisha Poe   Director: Tayarisha Poe   Screenplay: Tayarisha Poe   Cast: Lovie Simone, Celeste O’Connor, Jharrel Jerome, Gina Torres, Jesse Williams, Ana Mulvoy Ten, Henry Hunter Hall, Evan Roe, Francesca Noel, Benjamin Breault, Cody Sloan and Rae Bell   Distributor: Amazon Studios

Grade:  B

A posh prep school is the setting for Tayarisha Poe’s first feature, an extraordinarily stylish portrait of the head of one of the student factions that dominate the campus.  Visually striking and strongly acted if somewhat weak in a purely narrative sense, “Selah and the Spades” is a debut that’s impressive on its own terms and shows remarkable promise for the future.

Selah Summers (Lovie Simone), a senior at prestigious Haldwell Academy, is the leader of the Spades, the group that sells drugs, booze and other necessities to the student body.  (As a prologue informs us, it’s one of five such factions at the school.)  Her right-hand man is Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome), who actually carries the products to the customers.

Of the other factions, the one most confrontational to the Spades is the Bobbies, the drama group headed—as seems proper—by Bobby (Ana Mulvoy Ten), a blonde mean girl always happy to get in Selah’s face.  (The inclination is mutual.)  Her lieutenant is Tarit (Henry Hunter Hall).

The film might best be described as a plot-driven character study of Selah, whose senior year is marked by pressure—some of it self-inflicted—as well as personal and “professional” challenges.  Though Bobby is a constant irritant, the school administration doesn’t pose much of a challenge to her grip over the Spades: Mr. Banton (Jesse Williams), the newly-installed headmaster, thinks he’s in charge, but he proves little more adept than the truant officer trying to outwit Ferris Bueller was (though Williams remains much more composed than Jeffrey Jones did).  And while Selah’s mother Maybelle (Gina Torres) is prodding her to make a decision about college, Selah keeps putting off addressing the matter.

Selah also has decisions to make within her faction.  She’s confronted not only by the Bobbies but by internal stresses.  Maxxie, on whom she’s always depended unreservedly, becomes a mite sloppy.  Tarit informs her that she might have a mole within her organization—a situation she chooses to handle, as she does others, with an application of violence.  And she needs to make a choice about the Spades’ leadership for next year.

All of these are related to Selah’s feelings about personal relationships.  While she’s precise about how she and her crew are perceived by others—she controls her cheerleading squad with an iron hand, and even practices her smile in front of a mirror to make sure it’s as it should be—she’s basically a solitary person, avoiding dating and other connections that would interfere with her self-possession.  This seemingly impregnable persona is attacked in two ways.  Maxxie’s missteps, for example, derive from splitting his time between his duties and a new girlfriend, something Selah can’t deal with. 

Even more importantly, Selah herself is personally torn when she meets Paloma (Celeste O’Connor), a photographer whom she identifies as a potential successor in the Spades and takes under her wing—a position that, as will be revealed, carries some danger.  The two become virtually inseparable, and Selah becomes less and less able to deal with what she’s feeling, especially after a misjudgment that puts the prom—and her own confidence—in jeopardy.

Poe’s control over all the aspects of the film is remarkable.  Together with her craft colleagues—cinematographer Jomo Fray, production designer Valeria De Felice and costumer Jami Villers—she fastidiously fashions a world at Haldwell that’s specific, mingling realism with a touch of the fantastic (like the stage set for Bobby’s upcoming staging of “Macbeth,” or a sequence in which the factions collaborate to flummox Banton with an elaborate display of candles on a school stairwell and the glossily glowing dance scenes).  To the look of the setting she adds, working with editor Kate Abernathy, carefully calibrated pacing, to which Aska Matsumiya’s eclectic score contributes a moody spell.

All the craftsmanship in the world would mean little, though, if the cast weren’t fully committed.  O’Connor and Jerome are both excellent, and the supporting players are as well, but it’s Simone on whose shoulders the success of the film ultimately rests.  She proves entirely up to the task, managing even the sequences when Selah is alone, staring with blazing eyes into the camera, with a confidence beyond her years.

There’s more than a hint of affectation to “Selah and the Spades,” but a degree of showing-off is to be expected of a neophyte director.  This is a film that showcases an important new voice, making one look forward to Poe’s future work.