“It’s not a wedding – I was very explicit on that in the invitation,” Celestina (Kiersey Clemons) tells the throng of friends that have shown up to witness the union of she and her partner River (Leon Bridges) in “The Young Wife,” whatever anyone wants to call it. Celestina is calling it a party, but confused guests revert to the traditional, some only to irritate their host while others do so unintentionally with the mounting level of gifts that she never asked for received unhappily. In the bravura opening of “Selah and the Spades” director Tayarisha Poe’s dazzling second feature, she can be heard in voiceover explaining her reluctance to call it as it is, occupying a breathtaking piece of land that her father once claimed for himself and her mother (Sheryl Lee Ralph) who never got married and she believed that “was the secret to their happiness until the accident of me.” Despite this telling bit about her mild self-confidence, there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary from the collection of friends that have shown up to the tropical locale to wish her well to the job at a private equity firm she just left where she was so valued that a co-worker Dave (Jon Rudnitsky) makes a five-hour drive uninvited and attempts to blackmail her for her return.
The abrupt departure the day before the nuptials, which isn’t something she’s sharing with family and friends and gives Dave plenty to work with, is only the start of soul-searching for Celestina, who busies herself cleaning up for everybody else on what should be the happiest day of her life, wondering what’s to become of her. A celebration becomes an inundation when cinematographer Jomo Fray swings the camera around with abandon and all the relationships the titular character holds dear come across as obligations she’s struggling to meet, all while River is stuck in traffic trying to make it home in time, and while she can sneak off and chill with her grandmother-in-law Cookie (Judith Light), who takes swigs off an oxygen tank laced with some magical Peruvian seeds, it’s understandable that if this is the pressure of day one of married life, she needs to bail before day two to protect her sanity.
Like Poe’s gloriously stylized prep school thriller “Selah and the Spades,” “The Young Wife” is set in a slightly heightened universe where people will drop everything to calm down once the “Meditation Minute” (starring Selah herself, Lovie Simone) comes on the TV and wedding presents come by way of the Future Nostalgia Trading Company, though it seems very much of the moment we’re in now as it connects a fear of commitment to a grander existential dread, with Celestina leaving her job when she think she’s doing more harm than good playing the stock market and continually reminded that the world is on fire, if not with news reports of out-of-control conflagrations, then smaller inconveniences closer to home such as being unable to use her French press when the tap water has become polluted with waste and the azaleas have come in a tad too early because of climate change.
Poe and crew are endlessly inventive in evoking chaos, but the bold colors and hypnotic editing make it feels like a refreshing Afro-futurist update on a Bergman film, the bombast of the world crashing down on Celestina rather than suffering in silence and when she has the choice to join this life or run from it, it’s difficult when one can’t help but see both its allure and its ability to overwhelm due to the verve of the filmmaking. Still, even if it seems like the last consideration among all of Celestina’s practical concerns, the feeling of love throughout “The Young Wife” is its most prominent element, making the question of whether Celestina should put aside all else to surrender to it a truly compelling one.
“The Young Wife” will screen at SXSW on March 16th at 9 pm at the AFS Cinema.