When you first see Ayanna (Zora Howard), she looks to be in her element. She laughs with friends on the subway, flirting with guys standing opposite them. She chats without effort, but with speed and fluidity, in control of her surroundings. It provides a stark contrast to Ayanna only 90 minutes later, as Rashaad Ernesto Green’s Premature follows this 17-year-old through her summer before her first year of college.
Ayanna wants to be a writer, and her poetry’s used as voiceover throughout the film, providing a constant rhythm to the coming-of-age drama. A few minutes into the film, she meets Isaiah (Joshua Boone) at a local park in Harlem, soon seeing him once again at a laundromat in the neighborhood. He courts her, unable to resist his initial smooth talking, humble, and honest appeal. He’s older by a few years, a music producer of sorts, and a college dropout. In a matter of days, they begin spending all of their time together, striking up a summer romance in the humid Manhattan air.
Still in the first act, Isaiah says to the effect that he “feels like the world’s preparing you for something,” and in Ayanna’s case, it was preparing her for him. The two become intertwined, physically and emotionally. Green uses intimate and personal scenes of the couple’s sex life to show just attached they’ve become. As they grow closer, problems begin to creep in, with Isaiah’s ex-girlfriend making an appearance, Ayanna dancing with another guy at a party, and a spat between him and her close friends at a restaurant. All of this culminates in the ultimate crutch of their relationship, a mix of age, maturity, and an imbalance of power. He sees her in a different way than she sees him.
The problems become more contrived as the film reaches its climax, though Howard gives an absolutely incredible performance. She does most of her best work through simple facial expressions, giving a heavy dose of emotions, heartbreak, and maturity with her eyes. She grows up in the 90-minute runtime, becoming pregnant and losing a baby in the process. Green handles all of these situations with care, though it’s hard to feel like you’re watching anything particularly new. He gives up on her rather quickly, though it’s hard to feel like their possibly two-month relationship was anything more than that, and by the end, the stakes feel quite small and oddly reminiscent of past films.
Still, Green’s script, jointly written with Howard, has moments of interesting reality. One scene sticks out: a day at the recording studio with Isaiah, musicians, and Ayanna. They talk about the importance and consequence of music and why they make it. Ayanna absorbs everything, staying silent, while Isaiah flaunts his worldview with confidence and precision. She’s living in his world, while hers is about to change a few short months later.
Premature might not be too different from other growing-up stories, but Howard gives an admirable and memorable performance in the title role. Fascinating dialogue and a sense of time and place make this film worthy of a watch, but temper your expectations, as it likely won’t be anything you haven’t seen before. If Howard has anything to say about it though, this will be just the beginning.
IFC Films will release Premature on Friday, February 21 in NY, LA and select cities and on VOD platforms.