'Premature': Film Review | Sundance 2019

Courtesy of Sundance Institute
A small but stirring coming-of-ager with a knockout lead turn.

Zora Howard stars in and co-wrote Rashaad Ernesto Green's drama about a Harlem teen and her summer romance with a slightly older man, premiering in the festival's NEXT sidebar.

Sometimes a movie’s most potent asset — its not-so-secret weapon — is the face of its lead performer. Such is the case with Premature, a modest, lovely slice of New York City naturalism about a black teen and her steamy summer fling with a slightly older man. The face in question — that of Zora Howard, who also co-wrote the film — is not an immediately accessible one; it’s long and watchful, suggesting a spiky, searching intelligence, a glimmer of mischief and secrets closely kept. When, late in the movie, a flood of feelings burst through that stoicism, their force knocks you sideways.

Directed by Rashaad Ernesto Green (who shares a writing credit with Howard), Premature is familiar in its tone and arc, as well as in the twists and turns of its coming-of-age story. But every time the camera returns to Howard’s face, the film hooks you. Green’s second feature (after 2011’s under-the-radar Gun Hill Road) has other things to recommend it, namely its gentle insistence on centering the voice, desires and prickly personality of its 17-year-old heroine. That focus lends the film a sense of purpose and urgency that see it through some missteps, particularly in a shaky third act.

But while it’s primarily the portrait of a guarded young woman who opens herself up to the rush and risk of love, Premature also offers, via the people and places that make up the protagonist’s world, a broader snapshot of contemporary Harlem — both its vibrancy and the deeply entrenched systemic challenges faced by many of its black residents. This is an imperfect but stirring drama, by turns sweet, sexy and quietly wrenching.

We first see Ayanna (Howard) on the subway with her friends (Alexis Marie Wint, Imani Lewis and Tashiana Washington, all fantastic) as they tease each other and talk smack. Their banter, rich with slang, laughter and raunch, punctuates the movie throughout, jolting it out of its sometimes woozy romantic languor with a furious comic energy.

Ayanna has finished high school and is heading to a liberal arts college in the fall. An aspiring writer, she’s often clutching a notebook into which she scribbles poetry we hear in voiceover — the sort of swoony, spoken-word-style verse that sounds banal until it stuns you with an achingly vivid image or turn of phrase.

A few minutes into the film, Ayanna and her crew watch a pickup basketball game, and one of the players catches her eye: Isaiah (Joshua Boone), a dashing twentysomething who is, she soon learns, a composer trying to break through. Smart, sensitive and just smooth enough to never seem smooth, he comes on to her delicately, coaxing her out of her shell with chivalrous chitchat, probing questions and musings on the immortality of music.

In a refreshing touch, Ayanna makes the first move, leaning in for a hungry kiss as the two sit beside the Hudson River. The subsequent sex scene has a tender erotic charge, the camera lingering on the young woman’s ecstatic face and heaving body in a manner that feels purposeful rather than voyeuristic; it’s Ayanna’s experience, and the transformative nature of this relationship for her, that interest the filmmakers.

Ayanna and Isaiah start dating, and she falls hard and fast. There are bumps along the way: One day, Isaiah’s ex lets herself into his apartment, demanding to speak to him (the fact that she’s white triggers Ayanna in ways the movie shrewdly shows rather than tells); tensions erupt between Isaiah and Ayanna’s friends; and the couple’s sexual relationship has unintended consequences, in a development that comes perilously close to narrative cliche and nudges the film uncomfortably toward melodrama.

What keeps you invested is Howard, who makes her proud, steely character’s every moment of vulnerability feel like a gift to both the audience and to Isaiah, who may not be worthy of her. It’s a performance that builds gradually in power and radiance. Boone’s role feels less organic, more written — the dreamboat with baggage — but the actor is persuasive as someone whose easy charm and intelligence mask his personal limitations. One of the film’s most provocative implications is that those limitations stem, to a certain extent, from the anxieties and burdens of being a young black man in 21st-century America.

Premature is equally clearsighted about what draws Ayanna to Isaiah, besides lust. In one scene, she observes him and his musician friends debating art and politics. As they bat around big ideas, spirals of smoke filling the air, Ayanna turns her face intently toward each person speaking, a rapt spectator soaking in every word. The director deftly establishes not just the romantic dynamic between Ayanna and Isaiah, but also an unmistakable power imbalance: Even if she’s always keeping him in check with her sharp tongue and skeptical eye, she is very much in his thrall.

Ayanna’s relationship with her wary single mother, played by a superb Michelle Wilson, is handled with similar nuance. The interactions between the two are combative, fraught with everyday tensions and longer-simmering resentments, but also a deeply lived-in devotion. In just a handful of scenes, they conjure an emotional history rich enough to fill its own movie.

Green and DP Laura Valladao deploy an unobtrusive visual style, knowing when to move in close without crowding or ogling their actors. They also make fine use of New York City locations, giving the film texture and a bristling authenticity. That distinct sense of realness extends to the dialogue, which, with one queasy exception (a jokey exchange about O.J. Simpson, Ike Turner and Bill Cosby), is fresh and unforced.

Premature hits an unfortunate false note in a final scene that suggests the screenwriters don’t have the same confidence in their main character as we do. There’s integrity in the movie’s willingness to recognize that inner strength and self-possession aren’t shields against heartbreak. But you may wish the filmmakers had realized that Ayanna doesn’t need to win a man’s love, so completely has she won ours.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (NEXT)
Production companies: Mi Alma Films, Astute Films, Slice Entertainment Group, Relic Pictures
Director: Rashaad Ernesto Green
Screenwriters: Rashaad Ernesto Green, Zora Howard
Cast: Zora Howard, Joshua Boone, Michelle Wilson, Alexis Marie Wint, Imani Lewis, Tashiana Washington
Producers: Darren Dean, Joy Ganes, Rashaad Ernesto Green
Executive producers: Chadd Harbold, Eric Schultz, Susan Kelechi Watson
Music: Patrick Cannell, Stephan Swanson
Cinematographer: Laura Valladao
Editor: Justin Chan
Production designer: Grace Sloan
Casting: Harrison Nesbit

86 minutes