Tayarisha Poe Crafts Intimate Story With Visual Flair [SXSW]

Mar 19, 2023

When Tayarisha Poe came out with Selah and the Spades, her directorial debut, it was clear this gifted writer-director had a vision and a unique visual flair. In her second feature film, The Young Wife, Poe accentuates a visual and auditory style that merges seamlessly with the story and the titular character’s journey over the course of her non-wedding day. Paired with an outstanding performance by Kiersey Clemons, Poe crafts an intimate, profound, and visually gorgeous feature that overwhelms the senses.

Celestina (Clemons) is marrying River (Leon Bridges) on the land her father bought for her mother. Celestina is calling the event a party, a non-wedding wedding ceremony with close family and friends. However, the idea of a non-wedding confuses almost everyone, and so Celestina powers through conversations about her non-traditional engagement ring, accepts gifts she didn’t ask for, and flowers she didn’t want. As the day goes on, Celestina struggles to balance the party preparations with her overflowing thoughts and feelings about marriage and her future, including the fact that she left her job and hasn’t told River yet.

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The emotions Celestina feels throughout the day are overwhelming — anxiety mixed with stress, happiness, doubt, frustration all tumble through, coalescing in a cacophony of noise that surrounds her and pierces her heart and mind. Poe truly nails the feeling of being overpowered by so much at once. It’s as though at any moment Celestina is going to either scream or run away; they’re moments that are broken only by Lovie Simone’s meditation instructor, who encourages everyone to take three deep breaths from the television that is always on.

The Young Wife’s editing is crucial, merging a deluge of unending advice from family and friends with the peaceful solitude of the outdoors, all while the thunder from incoming rain reminds viewers that all is not well in Celestina’s world. The myriad of emotions she cycles through are well-handled. Poe is able to capture the intensity of Celestina’s self-doubt, her questioning the reason behind the next big step in her romantic relationship, of wondering about the what-ifs and societal conventions, all while still wanting to love someone fully regardless of the obstacles — mental and otherwise.

The Young Wife is essentially a celebration, but it’s one that is clouded by Celestina’s very complicated, and very human, feelings. The film makes clear that this big decision, while Celestina’s own, isn’t free of pressure or from the discordant advice handed out by her mother (Abbott Elementary’s Sheryl Lee Ralph), future mother-in-law (Michaela Watkins), best friend Brianna (A. Jae Michele), and a number of others who question, support, or otherwise bombard Celestina with their takes and need for attention. The growing sense of unease and dissonance Poe imbues the film is masterful. It brings audiences into the story so much that it makes them want to potentially bolt alongside Celestina, so strong are the anxiety and overwhelming emotions pulsing throughout.

In Kiersey Clemons ‘ capable hands, Celestina is a fully realized character. Clemons brings a patient, yet exasperated energy to the role, shouldering the responsibility of wedding preparations (despite saying it’s a non-wedding party) while parsing through the layers of her wants and doubts. As the camera follows her throughout her day, Clemons beautifully conveys all that is bubbling beneath the surface through specific body and facial movements, and her performance evokes a strong reaction. The supporting cast is fantastic, easily slipping in and out of Celestina’s orbit and making an impression while doing so.

Poe has long been a filmmaker worth keeping an eye on, and The Young Wife cements that. It’s a visually stunning film that concisely portrays what it means to be overwhelmed by so much at once. Aesthetically, Poe’s film is dazzling, its colors exciting, tranquil, lush. The writer-director truly makes the most out of the setting, and the story’s payoff is earned. The film has no easy answers for Celestina’s questions, but her journey throughout is all the more powerful because of it.

More: Boston Strangler Review: Keira Knightley & Carrie Coon Carry Effective Crime Drama

The Young Wife had its premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival. The film is 97 minutes long and is not yet rated.

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