Excellent movie-making makes me happy, period. So I’m content to hop on the critical bandwagon and write the 200th review singing the praises of fine films like Hustlers and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. But I become positively giddy when I can laud a film that could be easily missed by moviegoers.
Premature is a film like that. And reading its origin story – director pours his own money into it, shoots it in his Harlem neighborhood with a childhood friend as the lead, then scrambles with his editor to get it ready for Sundance – only prompts me to root for it more.
Its director, Rashaad Ernesto Green, co-wrote the screenplay with Premature’s lead actor, Zora Howard. Despite being in her mid-20s, Howard is 100% believable as complicated, introspective, yet very adolescent Ayanna. (On the strength of this performance, hopefully Howard will earn much more screen time in the future.)
Set the summer before she leaves for college, Premature opens with Ayanna and her trio of best friends ogling young men on an outdoor basketball court. Isaiah, a handsome newcomer to the neighborhood, attempts to introduce himself, but Ayanna curtly dismisses him as just another shallow flirt.
At a later chance meeting, this time at the laundromat, Ayanna allows Isaiah to walk her home and begins to open herself up to him. It’s not long before she falls for him hard.
Green accompanies the visual depiction of the intense, fast intimacy between Ayanna and Isaiah with voiceovers of poetry from Ayanna’s journal. Her lyrical phrases smartly evolve in a way that reveals both the arc of their relationship and her accruing wisdom. Infatuated lines early in the film (“what did I know of my heart before you gave it shape?”) mature into speculation that they might be “too young to live this old.”
The rest of the script and its dialogue resound with wit and authenticity. After Ayanna and Isaiah’s first sexual encounter, one of Ayanna’s friends says she’s “shining like fresh money.” In the tense but ultimately supportive give-and-take with her mother, Ayanna critiques her “flavor of the month” boyfriend habit.
The screenplay as well as the acting by Howard and her opposite, Joshua Boone, nicely individualize their characters. Ayanna is assertive but is the quietest member of her peer group. Isaiah, a composer and aspiring music producer, loves to share his works in progress with Ayanna, while she keeps her poetry to herself. As the two grow closer, complications emerge: Isaiah’s gallantry threatens to become controlling, while an ex-girlfriend on the periphery suggests his ready smile and charm may conceal problems with commitment and communication.
Romance films are hardly my favorite genre, but my interest never flagged with this one. Green gives the course of Ayanna and Isaiah’s relationship an effective momentum, with a plot that never deteriorates into cliché.
It helps, too, that Premature has such a vivid sense of place. Green has said he shot his 16 mm film as a love letter to a Harlem in danger of losing its identity to gentrification. His affection comes through bountifully: in a purple sunset reflected on the Hudson, a subway bongo player, and shish kebob bought from a corner vendor, to name but a few.
In an interview with Filmmaker magazine, Green discussed how he and Howard felt that making a young black love story was a radical act in a cinematic world suffused with tales of black pain, fear, and death. This is not to say Premature is devoid of politics. In one scene, Isaiah disagrees with a couple of black musicians over whether art is inherently political; in another, Ayanna’s friends and Isaiah quarrel over who has the harder time in today’s NYC, black men or black women. However, politics play third fiddle to romance and relational dynamics in general here.
Premature is an expansion of a short film of the same name, released in 2008. And this is Green and Howard’s second collaborative feature, following 2011’s Gun Hill Road. With such a wonderful voice and vision when united, I hope it doesn’t take another 9 years for their next project to arrive in cinemas.
(Image credit for star rating: Yasir72.multan CC BY-SA 3.0 )