Soft, slow, and serene. A pair of lovers kiss on the Harlem train. In the constancy of the crowded space, they are unruffled. Ayanna (Zora Howard), a self-confident seventeen-year-old with big dreams, looks on, gazing at their unconfined affection. As her eyes glimmer with an onlooker’s curiosity, we hear her words over the film: “When I close my eyes, you are there. When they open, I cannot tell which parts of them are still mine. Where you begin, I end.” As she quantifies the selflessness and embodiment of love, her own experience is in the air. Perhaps this love came into her life too soon, but nonetheless ripe for the taking.
Rashaad Ernesto Green‘s Premature is a poignant piece of young love and kindled womanhood. The story of a girl falling in love just shy of moving for college transpires into something more. At a young age, the idea of romance is made up of unattainable parts you see in movies, read in books. Love is not easy nor easily understood. Young love is especially cumbersome the first time around, when you’re invincible in a time that never feels finite. Words on pages, romanticized by the great poets and novelists, take on a passion of their own, and Ayanna’s poetry totes a mature familiarity. Her dreams of writing guide her to college in the fall, and with it, a growing self-agency. Unlike Black stories that may stray into conceiving social traumas and pain, this film offers a beautiful, ruminating narrative on the matter of love and independence in a young woman’s eyes.
Premature unveils shades of a young woman’s intimacy, the physical and emotional parts. It places her in a narrative that allows her womanhood to crystallize and amplify her journey on her terms. The film sources its strength from Ayanna (played by an unforgettable feature-length presence in Howard), allowing a beautiful, coming-of-age progression across a whirling summer romance. Surrounded by a close-knit group of girlfriends, Ayanna is steadily independent, fiery and quick-witted around the boys. Getting off the train, she playfully gets a man’s phone number on behalf of her friend. She boasts the confidence and radiance of a young woman with nothing to prove. She soon falls into a romance with Isaiah (Joshua Boone), who is slightly older and in town for work as a music producer.
Falling is the right word, as Ayanna slips into a voyage of feelings taking her by storm. While she’s naturally dismissive of other guys, this thing with Isaiah feels different. She dazzles in her poems, but something about Isaiah opens her heart further. It could be the whim of getting involved with someone unlike anyone on her block, feeling like an escape from home. It could be the allure of a man that wants to give her the world. Either way, Ayanna is doused in a love that tests her vulnerability from the inside out. What takes shape is a romance so young and lush, yet unarmed.
One day, Ayanna hangs out with her group of girls as they mingle and watch the boys play ball on the court. Isaiah, a cousin of a friend, catches her eye. They lock eyes for a moment, but it’s nothing to lose sleep over. He doesn’t say much post-game, but later finds Ayanna sitting at the swing set with her notebook. He approaches her and strikes up a conversation, albeit brief. On the guys’ court shenanigans, Ayanna says it’s one big game to all of them; spitting games and playing games. “No, not all,” Isaiah tells her. As he sees Ayanna at the laundromat the next day, he charmingly lands a date with her. The following pieces to the story are an array of emotions carried well by Howard and Green’s thoughtful script and its wondrous trials of young love.
Intimacy, in any capacity of the word, is to know someone, to unlock parts once hidden, to share dreams with someone, to remove one’s clothing. In Green’s film, intimacy is unveiled one frame at a time. From smooth, glistening bodies intertwining in the shower and on the bed, Ayanna’s sexual life with Isaiah is explored in stages comfortable to her. Just before their first sexual encounter, Isaiah asks her, “Are you good?” The question itself comes up as Ayanna begins to undress while kissing him. As a sign of consent, Isaiah’s question also feels like a touching point from his own pace. He stops briefly and asks if he can play a record owned by his late father. Ayanna sits up at the bedside, hands over her sheer bralette. She feels exposed and ready, a sudden urge bubbling within her. It’s a pause to her rhythm, but as Isaiah comes back to her side, the two continue embracing. And to the sound of dulcet jazz, they make love.
Her curves and his interlace. Every time they have sex, it’s filmed with Ayanna’s satisfaction in mind. Isaiah caresses her skin with his lips, enrapturing her. She’s no longer shaking with the impediment of nerves, so she indulges. The camera catches a glance of her sensually evoked face. The beats of a song, along with Laura Valladao‘s exquisitely captured cinematography, compliment one of many intimate pinnacles in Ayanna and Isaiah’s relationship. Green’s film lets Ayanna bask in her sexual pleasures, as well as painting a picture of a young girl growing into her adult person. She is liberated, and wants Isaiah to be free by her side.
“Seventeen and ready to bury my body in his country.”
Ayanna’s poetry makes a home of their love. Her words have always held weight, but with Isaiah in her life, they breathe new meaning. Throughout Green’s film, Ayanna’s poetry (not originally written into the film) lets viewers in on how she is riding the wave of their love. As much as Isaiah sees music as “vibrations passing through us,” and simultaneously lasting forever, Ayanna’s poems nurture a boundless intensity. “Whenever it comes, the flood of you rushing toward me, I’ll be ready. I’ll be unafraid,” she recites. This intensity nourishes every bit of her being, as a young woman on the cusp of the whole world. As culture critic Soraya Nadia McDonald beautifully writes, it’s a “masterful portrayal of the appearance of confidence that comes with being 17, of being talented and smart and yet unaware of what you don’t know.”
As their relationship takes off, Isaiah meets Ayanna’s mom Sarita (Michelle Wilson) at a neighborhood cookout. Her mother never again sees him in the film, but Ayanna’s relationship with her mom becomes disconnected as she brings her frustrations home. The women surrounding Ayanna are a wholesome collective of her evolving womanhood. When Ayanna is hurting from Isaiah, she recoils from her mother. After all, all the viewer ever sees of her mother is when she has a partner around the house or asking Ayanna about their bills and her future. For some time, Ayanna neglects her mother’s emotional support. Through unspoken language, Sarita expresses great concern and motherly warmth toward Ayanna while trying to give her the space to be a woman and aware.
It’s not until Ayanna becomes pregnant when her mother makes her presence known. Sarita sees right through her daughter. Every head jerk, every avoidance of eye contact, her mother recognizes her pain. Nurturing her is enough, and Ayanna’s capability to rise stems from the support system that’s always been there for her. When she follows through with an abortion, she’s home alone when the pains come crashing down. As if it were her world falling, she calls for help, and the women who have always championed her, come to her side. Whether it’s her girlfriend rambling about how guys always think women are specially made for them, to crying in bed before laughing, friendship and womanhood help Ayanna never to forget the woman she is and wants to be.
Although Ayanna and Isaiah have a falling out, she can’t help but know this thing is real, and she works for it. As the lyricist she is, she sits by the lake at their novel spot to write in words to his unfinished song. She slips the lyrics to a singer he works for, and she sings it at a live gig. In other words, whether they get back together or not, this is her closure. Whether they rekindle a premature love or not, this is how her story continues.
Premature is a modern love story for anyone that’s ever experienced young, uncertain romance. It’s when you’re ready to take on the world when you’re at your most vulnerable and willing. Ayanna, full of confidence and passion, is the strong pillar to Green’s film. Through her fleeting, and sometimes heartbreaking, journey, Ayanna grows into herself to come out the other side whole and renewed.
Directed by: Rashaad Ernesto Green
Written by: Rashaad Ernesto Green, Zora Howard
Cast: Zora Howard, Joshua Boone, Michelle Wilson, Alexis Marie Wint