Premature is a slice-of-life film about one summer in the life of Ayanna (Zora Howard), a Harlem teenager getting ready go to college the following year. She spends her time hanging out with her friends, fighting with her mother, and writing poetry she allows no one else to read, until she meets Isaiah (Joshua Boone), a new arrival in Harlem with whom she begins to fall in love. The pair discuss his music and her poetry during their summer romance, set against the backdrop of a changing Harlem, and their relationship begins to have the potential to shape the rest of Ayanna’s life before it has begun.
Premature is an intense and lyrical film, as much in love with the images of Harlem as it is with the music that Isaiah produces and the poetry Ayanna writes. The narrative is focalized through Ayanna’s perspective, seeing Isaiah in shifting lights as their relationship deepens and alters. She’s young but aware of herself and her desires, and Isaiah presents, at least at first, an alternative to the other cocky young men around her. The film was co-written by director Rashaad Ernesto Green and Zora Howard, lending a legitimacy to the perspective of a teenage girl shifting from one world to the next.
Premature attempts to marry image and language as one of the film’s focal points, as different uses of visual, aural, and oral language intermingle on the screen. While Ayanna spends a good bit of time not talking, Isaiah won’t stop, relating everything from his musical ambitions to his relationship with his father within a few days of their meeting. Ayanna hardly speaks, but she writes beautiful poetry, presented in voiceover as she begins to fall for Isaiah. Her friends talk constantly, often without saying much, but their use of language affects Ayanna’s perceptions and desries. Isaiah remains in the midpoint, constantly searching for some way to connect with Ayanna but finding that he expresses himself best through music.
The film avoids clichés and shoehorned conflicts, developing organically as it charts its central relationship and the dangers and delights of young love. Green is more interested in the realities of the relationship and the problems faced by the characters than in attempting to establish a clear plot arc, and Premature occasionally suffers from a lack of narrative thrust, meandering from one event to the next. This is especially prevalent in a third act shift that throws Ayanna and Isaiah’s relationship into doubt, perhaps the most difficult part of the film to watch. Howard especially deals with these sequences with nuance and sensitivity and evades some of the more potentially problematic aspects of the plot shift.
There are so few films right now that attempt to actually look at the shift from teenager to adult with sensitivity and nuance, that treat sexuality as something that is complicated without necessarily being bad, or traumatizing. Premature, then, is a sensitive and nuanced film, understanding of its character even when they behave in less-than-stellar ways. It’s well-acted and gorgeously photographed, with a script that seeks to present realistic, un-romanticized behavior without dwelling in grief or trauma. It’s a fine needle to thread, but, for the most part, Premature succeeds.
Premature will next show at the BAMcinemaFest on June 15.