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‘The Young Wife’ Review: The Nervous Bride Saga Gets a Sumptuous, Stylized Makeover – Variety

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Just because Celestina, the soon-to-be young wife in the “The Young Wife” told friends and family that while the honor of their presence was requested, they would be attending a party, not a wedding, doesn’t make it so. The weight of family, community and ritual aren’t so easily evaded. Or embraced.

So, on the day of her and River’s nuptials, she appears to be wrestling less with the meaning of marriage and more with the weight of the word “wife.” Warm hearts and cooling feet is nothing new for movies, of course, but Kiersey Clemons’ portrayal of Celestina — her head spinning — raises the stakes of love and liberty.

Writer-director Tayarisha Poe has populated her sophomore feature with characters of a neo-bohemian, united colors-of-who-the-fuck-cares aura. Guests arrive with sartorial flash, expressive finery, hairdos that signal independence for days and attitudes that combine and recombine the traditional with the rebellious.

“Aura” is not a bad word for this tone-poem of a movie that begins “Once upon a time, there was a woman who loved a man, and he loved her back.”

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If Poe’s 2019 debut “Selah and the Spades”— set amid the cliques at an East Coast prep school — tossed and teased the high-school meanies genre, this film plies the fairytale quandaries of a female protagonist with creative jukes toward Black futurism. The look is sumptuous, stylized: honoring the natural world of the location (it was shot in Savannah, Georgia) while resisting any realism (the smartly defiant production design is the work of Rocio Gimenez) beyond Celestina’s authentic doubts.

The drama (and prickly comedy) of the day unfolds in a cabin with far too many vintage television sets, often playing worrying news reports or showing the TV sage Meditation Mary (Lovie Simone) sounding a chime and conducting a meditation minute. While the guests often heed the bell’s sound, Celestina is going to need more than 60 seconds to calm down. It can’t be an accident that while she struggles with the meaning of being a wife, she also hurriedly attends to all the domestic tidying associated with the role.

“The Young Wife” is set in 2033 but steeped in the emotional themes of the 2020 pandemic when isolation and the yearning for connection and community rubbed up against each other constantly. The film isn’t your de rigueur dystopian yarn, but there are signs of the near future the filmmaker imagines (and fears?). Celestina receives a gift from the “Future Nostalgia Trading Company.” Wildfires and floods are daily occurrences, if the news it to be trusted. (Is it?) And at one point River’s grandmother Cookie (Judith Light) hands Celestina an oxygen mask with a smile. “Take it, a breath of the freshest of airs.”

Here, the slightly askew rubs up against more familiar intergenerational lessons of love and life, most of them delivered by a trio of women who’ve seen some things, embodied by three formidable actors who’ve shown us a thing or two over the years.

Celestina’s mother is played with amusing hauteur by Sheryl Lee Ralph. If Angelique could have arrived via chariot to the vast property in the marshlands her late husband cultivated for her, she might have. Instead, she walks in wearing a sunshine yellow ensemble, a knowing look and harboring concerns about her only child’s future.

River’s mother Lara has a flower in her hair and a list of things for her (and by extension Celestina and River) to do before the wedding. Because Michaela Watkins pulls off the loopy love of maternal neurosis as Lara, it falls to Lara’s daughters (Aya Cash and Sandy Honig) to buzz around offering unsolicited insights to the bride-to-be.

And then there’s Cookie. With her wry smile and shock of periwinkle hair, Light’s character is decidedly tough but also growing weary of life. Whether drinking vodka, passing a joint, or just staring out toward the pine barrens with Celestina, it’s clear the two have forged a deep connection — so deep that Cookie presses her granddaughter-in-law to uphold her decision to die.

The right to die could seem like one theme too many — climate change and late capitalism also figure prominently — but aren’t weddings (at least those depicted onscreen) always inviting other people’s agendas into the mix?

River (singer Leon Bridges) doesn’t make an appearance until mid-film, though his presence flows through the film from the get-go. Still, the first time we meet the presumptive groom it’s as a mellifluous, calming voice in Celestina’s ear as she listens to him on the phone. When he does finally come through the door, he’s wearing a braided man-bun, all soulful hipster.

We already know that he left his career as a lawyer to become a baker. What he has only recently learned — although not from Celestina — is that she quit her corporate job as a financial analyst the day before their nuptials. The scene of that conflagration plays in flashback. If we you needed to know why she left a six-figure gig, her uninvited colleague Dave (Jon Rudnitsky) crashes the party to make clear what toxic wealth can look like.

Gifted cinematographer Jomo Fray’s camera mimics Celestina’s whirling doubts. The film’s sound design underscores the aliveness of the day with an incessantly ringing landline, building winds and the chattery racket of guests who are free and easy because it’s not their wedding. Poe lets the noise of overlapping conversations swallow up everyone’s points until the point is the cacophony of freighted, albeit celebratory, gatherings. And while the score (Terence Nance) hints at the future with its electronic notes, the songs never forget the romance.

When the end comes in much the way so many wedding movies do, the ritual feels familiar but worked through. It’s the party Celestina promised — but a different wedding than she feared.

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