A slow-motion panic attack in movie form, “The Young Wife” swirls around the hopes and doubts of a young woman (a radiant Kiersey Clemons) on the day of her “non-wedding.” It’s not a moment of matrimony, nor is it quite a commitment ceremony, but instead a day-long party, a celebration of the love between Celestina and her wishy-washy boyfriend River (Leon Bridges), who’s hours late. Set 10 years in the future and imbued with an ineffably otherworldly glow that almost makes you feel like you’ve been planted on another planet, “The Young Wife” is a heady soup of a wedding day ensemble dramedy, and one with plenty of spiky characters and admirable visuals to pluck from.
The director is Tayarisha Poe, who made waves at Sundance in 2019 for her confidently directed feature debut “Selah and the Spades,” a deftly choreographed ensemble piece about the underground factions of a fictional boarding school. Here, with “The Young Wife,” Poe seems to be charting the beginnings of a mixed-race family, with an ensemble including, along with “Dope” breakout Clemons and singer/songwriter Bridges, Kelly Marie Tran, Michaela Watkins, Aya Cash, Sandy Honig, Brandon Micheal Hall, Lukita Maxwell, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Judith Light, Aida Osman, Connor Paolo, Jon Rudnitsky, and Lovie Simone, playing all manner of personalities. Obviously, the cast had a joyous experience — even though for the audience it can be tough to find ballast amid the film’s wobbly, ever-shifting world and cast of characters.
In fact, it’s the type that, if this were a book, you’d need a family tree for, which Poe kind of provides in quirky tableaux, introducing each of the players suspended in ritualistic dance routines in the film’s opening. It evokes the beginning of Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia,” a movie whose first half appears to have influenced Poe here as another bustling wedding day where a bride (or in “The Young Wife’s” case a bride-adjacent) has a breakdown amid a cascading series of crises.
Memorably standing out from the pack are a delightfully unsmiling Sheryl Lee Ralph as Celestina’s domineering mother, skeptical of her daughter’s relationship with River; River’s scattered mother played by the always-a-pleasure-to-see Michaela Watkins; Aya Cash as River’s insufferable motormouth sister; and, stealing the show, Judith Light as Celestina’s mother-in-law to-be, an alcoholic who sees through everybody’s days and ways and the tenuousness of the role of “the wife.” A great line? When told by Watkins’ character to stop pounding shots of vodka midday, she spews, “It’s potatoes! It’s lunch.”
Celestina, meanwhile, is awash in regret over seemingly blowing up her close friend group over reasons that are, at first, out of the audience’s reach. She’s also recently quit a job as a dead-end corporate lackey — shown in perhaps overly stylized flashback with Celestina’s resignation letter scrawling across the screen as she has a fantasy of tearing her office apart — though it appears she may have a shot at getting that job back again. Meanwhile, how committed is River to her? And how much is she willing to forgo of herself, to subsume her autonomy as a woman into becoming a “we.”
Writer-director Poe’s choice to set the movie in the future is a curious one that strangely works: Why not place an otherwise ordinary dramedy in the setting of a utopian and not-far-off realm? There’s no sci-fi premise here, though the production design by Rocio Gimenez and costumes by Laura Cristina Ortiz suggest somewhere just slightly out of step with this world: Everyone is styled in eye-popping pastels, elaborate jewelry, and clothes that otherwise look, well, weird. Poe said she started writing the movie in 2019, questioning how becoming a wife means attaching yourself to other people’s expectations and labels. Then, the pandemic hit, and rituals like weddings and funerals started taking place over screens. The vibes, of course, shifted, and so “The Young Wife,” too, is a movie where the vibes have just skewed slightly out of orbit, almost imperceptibly.
Clemons, a discovery out of not just “Dope” but also “Antebellum” and even recently “Somebody I Used to Know,” is a ray of warmth and wonder, a clear center of gravity amid a constantly shuffling ensemble of people even when her own place in the universe isn’t so stuck. “The Young Wife” can be a chaotic experience, but Poe has the skills to carry us through the noise and toward the future.
“The Young Wife” premiered at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.