By Lynn Venhaus

Teen politics take on a more sinister edge in “Selah and the Spades,” especially when the stakes are high at a prestigious prep school.

Five factions rule an elite Pennsylvania boarding school, Haldwell. Selah Summers (Lovie Simone), 17, is the head cheerleader and golden girl who runs the dominant group, The Spades, supplying drugs and alcohol to the students. In an effort to maintain control when tensions escalate between the cliques, Selah takes on a protégé, photographer Paloma Davis (Celeste O’Connor), who is a sophomore and turns out to be a quick study.

So can Selah hold on to her power, even when she has a falling out with her best friend Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome)? Senior year proves to be intense, frustrating and not definitive at all. And these kids, in a different league, seems to operate as mob families.

First-time writer-director Tayarisha Poe uses a stylized, polished approach to present a heightened reality, and it is rather frightening how ugly everyone is on the inside while being consumed by outward appearances. And if this is the way the modern high school social cliques scene is, be afraid, be very afraid.

No matter what the status is, rich or poor, why do most high school kids feel they have to be somebody else and not themselves?

Poe has some good points here, but it’s mostly posturing. Most of the action is depicted after-school and underground, rarely any classroom time. The administration just seems to shake its heads at the antics and not have a grasp at all. Most of the kids are snooty mean girls and boys, so who do we root for? The poor, shy kid on scholarship who doesn’t realize her power, but when she does, it’s intoxicating?

That would be newcomer Paloma, and Celeste O’Connor is indeed a breakout here. As the lead girl, Lovie Simone impresses but Selah is too cold and calculating to elicit any feel-sorry emotions from the audience, let alone identify. She is obsessed with maintaining control and spends much of her energy trying to keep her power.

The power struggles aren’t all that interesting (and the head “Bobby” will get on your last nerve). The amount of drugs casually consumed is rather alarming too. But before I start sounding like a crabby old woman who didn’t hang out with the cool kids at the malt shop, this movie is hard to warm up to, let along relate. Its connection to reality is limited – OK, maybe the depiction of high school is legitimate but doesn’t ring true, or I could be incredibly naïve.

However, you do want something good to happen, especially with Jharrel Jerome as the best friend. Jerome, Emmy winner for his performance in “When They See Us,” a Netflix mini-series on the Central Park Five case, is an outstanding performer, destined for good work. He played Kevin as a teenager in “Moonlight” and is a terrific presence here.

For as much as this movie is about growing up, Selah never really grows and the ending is a muddled mess (and way too dark). This movie premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, so it has sat awhile. Yet, the director was tagged as someone to watch. She does show promise, as does the cast, but it never does rise to that special level people would be expecting and it could have achieved.

And that is very much like high school.

“Selah and the Spades” is a drama written and directed by Tayarisha Poe, starring Lovie Simone, Jharrel Jerome and Celeste O’Connor. It’s rated R for teen drug content and language. Run-time is 1 hr. 37 min. Lynn’s Grade: C+