Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. IFC Films releases the film on Friday, February 21.
Things are already tense between lovers Ayanna (Zora Howard) and Isaiah (Joshua Boone) by the time he blows up at her friends in a crowded restaurant, running out on them (and her), later sniffing to his teenage girlfriend that they’re “so young.” Ayanna, of course, is just as young as they are, but she’s so consumed by her burgeoning relationship that Isaiah’s insults fail to land with her. And yet the implication is unmissable. The somewhat unwieldy title of filmmaker Rashaad Ernesto Green’s second feature film is better read as “pre-mature” — the title card even plays up the intent, presenting the two parts in different colors — and its meaning should influence every moment that unspools: Ayanna is not yet mature, but she will be. But when?
Initially introduced during a high-energy opening scene set on an uptown train, Ayanna is confident and outspoken, wholly at ease with her friends as the foursome chatter during a ripped-from-NYC scene — a scene, and relationships, that feel real from the jump — and she seems world-wise in a way that will soon prove to be not entirely true. Ayanna toggles between mature decisions and dumb flights of fancy with the ease of any teenager, and while Howard (who also co-wrote the film) is now in her twenties, the specificity with which she approaches her character keeps her believable at every turn. (Ayanna’s friends, especially Alexis Marie Wint as her BFF Tenita, also turn in incredible, lived-in performances.)
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A recent high school graduate, Ayanna is headed off to college soon, eager to put her interest in writing and poetry (Howard has been a legend on the slam poetry circuit since she was just a teenager herself) to good use. But she’s still got one more summer at home, and when the handsome Isaiah catches her eye at a casual kickback, her final weeks in her native Harlem instantly take on a shape of their own. But is Isaiah too good to be true? As the first half of “Premature” ticks along with all the immediacy of life itself, the question begins to needle at both Ayanna and the audience.
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After a shocking revelation (one that literally unfolds with all the grace of a door being thrown open, and does that shock ever work), Ayanna and Isaiah begin to cut at each other through a series of increasingly brutal slights. Love may be blind, but it’s not stupid, and Green soon makes a strong case for both Ayanna and Isaiah having their own issues to sort out, their own pain, their own secrets. While Ayanna remains the focal point of the film, Green and Howard’s script find the space to explore Isaiah as well, shrugging off easy answers in favor of digging into the meat of real life.
The film’s most telling scene unfortunately marks a steep divide between the fine-tuned first half and a back end that threatens to crumble into cliche. As Ayanna and Isaiah’s relationship takes on a more complex cast, the crux of their issues emerge: Ayanna cannot be herself around him. It’s as relatable as it is heartbreaking, and as she sits mute during a sequence in which Isaiah gets to flex both his own creative chops and his wider take on the world at large, the difference between our first introduction to Ayanna and her current situation is stark. Even worse is the creeping sense that Ayanna, so waylaid by this first big love, does not see how it has diminished her.
It’s a compelling concept for a coming-of-age story, but the final act of “Premature” switches gears into more traditional twists, as Ayanna must deal with surprising news without Isaiah’s help. It’s a story that has been done before, and the way it unfolds isn’t original or unexpected, but Howard’s performance and poeticism gives it gravitas. And while Green’s refusal to tie it all up in a neat bow rankles at first, it eventually scans as a refection of a world beholden to questions that don’t have answers. When will Ayanna grow up? Soon, right now, even as you watch.
“Premature” had its world premiere at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.