There's a moment that encapsulates the essence of "Premature," director and co-writer Rashaad Ernesto Green's eagerly awaited sophomore feature following 2011's criminally underrated "Gun Hill Road."
It's when 17-year-old Ayanna (co-writer Zora Howard) and her friends are on the subway in Harlem, looking cute with their braids and sneakers, when they spot a group of guys across the car who they think are hot. The train stops and they all get off. Ayanna, in a bold move, stops one of the guys walking in front of them on the platform and asks for his number for her friend who's been eyeballing him. He gives it to her with a smile, and the two groups walk their separate ways.
It's because this moment is about being young and just graduating high school and thinking you're cool enough to approach a guy you like on the street -- because you're cute and he's cute and you think you're grown now, so why not? It captures the freedom of a time when you think you can do whatever you want without answering to anyone, because soon this will all be in your rearview mirror when you bounce off to an out-of-state college (in Ayanna's case, Bucknell University) and into adulthood for real. It's a time of female agency unlike any other you've experienced in your life. That's what makes this scene so special and what kicks off a rapturous, heart-wrenching love story.
Later that summer, Ayanna meets Isaiah (Joshua Boone), who's a few years her senior, while she's at a laundromat minding her business. It's clear he's into her, but she doesn't have, or doesn't make, the time for him. She picks up her clothes and strolls out without so much as a glance in his direction. He follows her down the street, asks if he could walk with her, she reluctantly allows him to carry her laundry bag, and BOOM, when she is least expecting it, they begin dating.
She is thoroughly invested in the relationship, as she sits with him in the park to watch the sunset, listening to Isaiah go on about his musical dreams (he is a songwriter and producer), and even telling him something she otherwise keeps very close to her heart: that she writes poetry. Little by little, Ayanna unconsciously finds herself sinking deeper into her relationship, completely uninhibited sexually and emotionally, poetry feverishly flowing onto every page of her journal.
She's in love, and she doesn't even realize it until it begins to hurt. She aches at one point when it looks like he's rekindled an old flame with another woman (a segue that isn't entirely explained). She aches when they make love. And though she may not recognize it, she aches when they're together and everything seems perfect. It's a lot for a young woman who thought she was grown long before she falls in love, and long before she gets pregnant -- which becomes the very thing that opens her eyes to everything she's been experiencing. This is all happening right before she's supposed to go to college.
"Premature" captures that unexpected, earth-shattering moment in life when you realize adulthood, real adulthood, is not so simple and cute. It's difficult, it's scary, and it's heartbreaking at times. That's what Howard's beautiful performance conveys. When she's tearfully knocking on Isaiah's door and screaming his name after he's turned his back on their relationship once it reaches a pinnacle, you feel it in your gut. He's not opening the door, and she's stuck alone with her overwhelming emotions for a man who was already grown before he met her.
Though the film's compelling love story is grounded in the perspective of Ayanna (and delivered by Howard, a spoken-word artist in real life), Isaiah's voice emerges through Boone's authentic portrayal of a black man struggling to contain his own romantic feelings as he tries in vain to confront the political revolution through his music. Neither he nor Ayanna may be ready for their romance, especially given their age difference.
As a viewer, you're so swept away by their love that you may not even think to consider it. It melts into the plot until you can finally come up for air and really scrutinize it. The sex scenes are handled responsibly and give Ayanna full agency, even as a minor. There is a point in the movie when the years between them does come up, though: It's when Isaiah's male point of view is challenged by Ayanna's friends. He storms away from them and Ayanna and later tells her in frustration, "Your friends are so young." It's the only time we see him confront the different spaces they're in in their lives. He wrangles with this briefly, while she sees it as an excuse to push her away. Both their perspectives are valid, but the ethical question remains.
The push and pull of Ayanna and Isaiah's relationship comes off naturally, thanks to Howard and Green's sensitive writing. That style carries over to Laura Valladao's equally raw cinematography, capturing the hot New York City summer from the almost dusty sidewalk pavements, to the fiery sunset over the park, and the intimacy of two vulnerable lovers in bed at night next to an open window. It's a smooth snapshot of the fleeting yet monumental moments of love, despair and self-actualization.