In Premature, directed by Rashaad Ernesto Green, the energy of late adolescence shoots forward like sparks, blooming, spinning and stilling until the realization of what is about to be lost to adulthood settles in like a lump in the throat.
Ayanna (played by Zora Howard, who also co-wrote the film with Green) is seventeen, whip-smart, and boulder strong, at least from an outside perspective, confident in the way that some teenagers are who have not yet had to come face to face with their vulnerability. She lives in Harlem with her mom (a standout Michelle Wilson) and hangs out with a group of her friends (Imani Lewis, Tashiana Washington, Alexis Marie Wint), the dialogue between them written naturally with joy and vivacity. When they stand on the subway together across from a group of boys, Ayanna is the one who fearlessly calls out one of them for looking at her friend and tells him to give her his number. All the while, she writes poetry in a little notebook that no one else can see. A shift occurs when Isaiah (Joshua Boone), an older (likely early 20s) music producer moves into the city and immediately catches her eye. Though Ayanna initially keeps her guard up, feigning indifference, Isaiah quickly charms his way into her heart with his quiet smoothness and sensitive musings about self-purpose and music.
Green and cinematographer Valladao capture Ayanna and Isaiah falling in love with equal parts naturalism and visual poetry. With soft, cool colors, the film sometimes feels like looking back at slightly faded photographs that elicit the essence of the feelings they captured, preeminent nostalgia etched into every moment. The city is more than a backdrop for the characters; it is shot with so much love that it goes beyond setting and acts as an integral, lyrical part of Ayanna’s experiences and feelings. The park swing set where they first talk, the laundromat where Ayanna does her homework, even the city sidewalk that she walks down: all are captured with a natural warmth and weight that flesh out Ayanna’s experiences. This is a stark contrast to the way the environments and homes of Black people are often portrayed, allowed to be a real site of love, growth, heartbreak, and most of all, home, rather than the one dimensional perception of an outsider. When they have their first kiss underneath a lilac sunset sky on the edge of the water, their outlines framed by that of an arching tree overhead, it embodies not just the beauty of first love but the feeling of being young and hopeful. And when they ride home on the subway together, Isaiah’s head on her shoulder, you sense Ayanna opening up and the reflection that comes with it, the ache, thrill, and fear.
Ayanna’s rich inner life is owed both to the way she is written and Howard’s performance. Nothing about her is one-sided or oversimplified in the way that even the most well-intentioned coming of age films can treat their teenage protagonists. Ayanna is a sharp firecracker, rarely holding back from voicing her thoughts and feelings, but she is also incredibly introspective, made clear not only by her poetry but by the film’s quiet lingering on her face in which you can see her think through everything. Ayanna, for all her strength and brashness, is also insecure, inexperienced, and painfully sensitive, and though she often tries to hide that, the film does not, allowing her both genuine strength and vulnerability.
This vulnerability is vivified and compounded by the age difference between her and Isaiah. At first, it is easy to forget. When Isaiah walks Ayanna home for the first time, moving to be on the side of her closer to the road, and he explains, “if a car hit a puddle or something, I’m the one that gets hit,” we are charmed right along with her. But then the disparity reestablishes itself throughout the film, in ways big and small: when they have sex, when they hang out with each other’s friends, when they speak about their past and future. In one short but memorable scene, amidst an argument with Ayanna’s friend, Shonte, Isaiah refers to Shonte as a “Black female,” to which she quickly fires back, “I ain’t a female nothing. I’m a Black woman, thank you. A female is what you call a dog or a animal.” When he leaves in frustration and Ayanna goes after him, he shakes his head, “Your friends...they mad young.”
The line is fascinating and disturbing on several levels for what it reveals and the questions that it raises. Why does Shonte (rightfully) calling him out inspire recognition of her youth and a subsequent dismissal of her? And perhaps more pressingly, why does he tell Ayanna that her friends are young when she is just as young as they are? This behavior, alongside the age difference in itself, make their relationship and Isaiah himself deeply questionable in my eyes, I think more than the filmmakers wanted.
Ultimately, however, the film is not actually about their relationship but rather Ayanna and her journey. When things go south for Ayanna and Isaiah, we watch her grieve and process, mature and move forward despite her sadness. She gets things done on her own or with the help of her mother and friends. When her best friend cheers her up with a silly song or her mom wipes her tears, those relationships feel like whole, permanent fixtures that truly make up a part of Ayanna, whereas her romance feels more like a step in her journey and a device for growth. The graduation party scene towards the end is quietly but deeply moving: the moment between Ayanna and her mother in the kitchen is embedded with the sadness of growing up and changing, the feeling of gaining a new appreciation for home and childhood just as you are leaving. The film feels complete after her graduation; we know that she has newfound agency and expression, more than capable of moving her life forward, and it is unfortunate, then, that Isaiah reappears in the final moment. The film has grown past him, but more importantly, so has Ayanna, even if she does not know it yet.