SXSW: A woman played by Kiersey Clemons struggles to find ballast on a chaotic “weddingless” day in this trippy comedy-drama.

A panic attack in slow motion in film form, “The young ladyswirls around the hopes and doubts of a young woman (a beaming Kiersey Clemons) on her ‘unwedding’ day. It’s not a wedding moment, nor quite a commitment ceremony, but rather a one-day party, a celebration of the love between Celestina and her vapid boyfriend River (Leon Bridges), who has 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 dramatic ensemble from the wedding day, and one with plenty of spiky characters and admirable visuals to pick from.

The director is Tayarisha Poe, who made waves at Sundance in 2019 for his confidently directed feature debut “Selah and the Spades,” a skillfully choreographed ensemble piece about the underground factions of a fictional boarding school. Here, with ‘The Young Wife’, Poe seems to chart the beginnings of a mixed-race family, with an ensemble including, 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 sorts of personalities. Clearly, the cast had a joyous experience — though for audiences it can be hard to find ballast in the film’s world and cast of wobbly, ever-changing characters.

In fact, he’s the guy for whom, if this were a book, you’d need a family tree, which Poe sort of provides in quirky tableaux, featuring each of the actors suspended in ritual dance routines at the opening of the film. He conjures up the start of Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia,” a film whose first half seems to have influenced Poe here as another lively wedding day where a bride (or in the case of “The Young Wife’s” an adjacent bride) makes a depression in the middle of a series of cascading crises.

Memorably standing out from the pack are a delightfully unsmiling Sheryl Lee Ralph as Celestina’s overbearing mother, skeptical of her daughter’s relationship with River; River’s scattered mother played by Michaela Watkins, always a delight to see; Aya Cash as River’s insufferable sister; and, stealing the show, Judith Light as Celestina’s future mother-in-law, an alcoholic who sees through everyone’s days and ways and the precariousness of the “bride” role. A nice line? When Watkins’ character tells her to stop drinking vodka shots at noon, she spits, “It’s potatoes!” It’s lunch.

Celestina, meanwhile, is awash with regret for seemingly blowing up her group of close friends for reasons that are, at first, out of public view. She also recently quit a job as a dead-end corporate lackey – shown in a perhaps overly stylized flashback with Celestina’s resignation letter scribbled across the screen as she fantasizes about tearing up her office – although it looks like she might have a chance to get that job again. In the meantime, what commitment East River to it? And how far is she ready to give up on herself, to subsume her autonomy as a woman to become a “we”.

Writer-director Poe’s choice to set the film in the future is curious and works strangely: why not set an otherwise ordinary comedy in the setting of a utopian, not-so-distant realm? There’s no sci-fi premise here, though Rocio Gimenez’s production design and Laura Cristina Ortiz’s costumes suggest a place slightly out of this world: everyone’s styled in stunning pastels , elaborate jewelry and clothes that seem otherwise, Well, weird. Poe said she started writing the film in 2019, wondering how becoming a woman means clinging to other people’s expectations and labels. Then the pandemic hit and rituals like weddings and funerals started happening on screens. The vibes, of course, have changed, and so “The Young Wife,” too, is a movie where the vibes just twisted slightly out of orbit, almost imperceptibly.

Clemons, a discovery not only of “Dope”, but also of “Antebellum” and even recently of “Somebody I Used to Know”, is a ray of warmth and wonder, a clear center of gravity in the middle of a whole of people who are constantly on the move, even when their 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 into the future.

Category B

“The Young Wife” premiered in 2023 SXSW Film festival. It is currently seeking distribution in the United States.

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