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The Young Wife

Despite what everyone says, weddings aren’t really about the bride and groom. They’re about the community surrounding them, parents and siblings and friends and coworkers and cousins they haven’t seen in three years who are stuck in traffic and won’t make it in time for the happy hour. “The Young Wife” understands this. 

The film, which takes place over a single day, is told from the perspective of Celestina (Kiersey Clemons), the “young wife” of the title. Celestina is hosting a party that definitely isn’t a wedding (although it is) at her demanding “Maman’s” (Sheryl Lee Ralph) country retreat in a flooded marsh. And all her friends and family—even the ones she’s not excited to see—will be there. 

Watching “The Young Wife” is an immersive, often overwhelming experience, a whirlwind of well-meaning but stressful characters mobbing the camera and speaking at such an anxiety-inducing speed that you forget to breathe for a second. (It’s a lot like how I remember my own wedding, actually.) Luckily, writer-director Tayarisha Poe inserts literal meditation breaks into the film, reminding us to breathe in and out. 

When we finally get to the wedding portion of this not-a-wedding, the tone shifts from nerve-shredding to blissful, as it does every time River (Leon Bridges), Celestina’s soon-to-be husband, enters the frame. River is a grounding force for Celestina, and their connection in the film is genuinely lovely. You’re rooting for these two to make it, which goes a long way toward staying invested in the minimal storyline. 

Celeste is a wonderfully complex character: She’s a fully rounded person with hopes and fears and a past and a future, who just quit her job at an evil corporation and resents how much money controls her life. She doesn’t have any specific dreams right now, but that’s because she needs some time (and some quiet) to figure things out. Talking to Cookie (Judith Light), River’s smart-mouthed stoner grandmother, helps; to be honest, so does the weed. Most of the ensemble seems shallow by comparison—although, to be fair, there are too many of them here to explore most of them in much depth.

More care is put into the characters’ world. Celestina is smart and sees through the bullshit that surrounds her; this is reflected in the heightened absurdity of the shows that blare on a small TV in the background throughout the film. Surreal touches are sprinkled throughout the film—at one point, the characters all freeze except for poor, beleaguered Celestina, who takes the opportunity to catch up on some dishes. These combine with a theatrical structure to give the proceedings an air of unreality, reflecting our protagonist’s frayed emotional state. 

One thing that lifts “The Young Wife” out of the realm of the merely experiential is that it’s set in 2033 (December 3, 2033, specifically). This gives Poe the opportunity to add subtle sci-fi touches, like the oxygen tank powered by an exotic plant that Cookie huffs between puffs. More importantly, it also allows her to introduce another source of tension to the film. Climate anxiety hums in the background of “The Young Wife,” as it does in many of our lives, and will surely continue as climate change gets more severe. References to floods and storms abound, with the occasional clap of thunder startling the characters like a bell tolling their doom. 

But what stands out the most about Poe’s second feature is the director’s exquisite taste. Every single design element, from the bisexual lighting to the camera a delivery person uses to take a photo of Celestina, is carefully selected as part of a harmonious overall aesthetic. (Celestina is frequently shown laden with packages, suggesting her psychic burdens.) The costumes, by prolific designer Laura Cristina Prtiz, are especially good, effectively selling the cool-kids-of-the-future vibe of Celestina and her friends. 

“The Young Wife” ends on an inconclusive note, but that’s just part of the experience of this movie, of the characters, of young people making adult decisions for the first time in their lives. It’s scary, striding forward into the future without knowing what will happen. Am I going to be okay? Are we going to be okay? Poe doesn’t know either, and the vulnerability and humility she expresses this uncertainty in this film is beautiful to see. 

Katie Rife

Katie Rife is a freelance writer and critic based in Chicago with a speciality in genre cinema. She worked as the News Editor of The A.V. Club from 2014-2019, and as Senior Editor of that site from 2019-2022. She currently writes about film for outlets like Vulture, Rolling Stone, Indiewire, Polygon, and RogerEbert.com.

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Film Credits

The Young Wife movie poster

The Young Wife (2024)

97 minutes

Cast

Kiersey Clemons as Celestina

Leon Bridges as River

Director

Writer

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