PREMATURE (Rashaad Ernesto Green, 2019)
323 Sixth Ave. at West Third St.
Opens Friday, February 21
From the first time their eyes meet, you know that Ayanna (Zora Howard) and Isaiah (Joshua Boone) are destined to fall in love in Rashaad Ernesto Green’s sweetly tender and moving Premature. A Sundance hit that was nominated for two Independent Spirit Awards — the John Cassavetes Award for best film made for less than $500,000 and the Someone to Watch Award for Green, whose previous film was 2011’s well-received Bronx-set Gun Hill Road — Premature is an expansion of Green’s 2008 fifteen-minute HBO Grand Jury Prize-winning short that starred Howard as a Bronx teen facing a crisis. Ten years later, longtime friends Green and Howard, who live in the same Harlem neighborhood, teamed up to write the feature-length version of the story, which opens February 21 at IFC. (Green will participate in Q&As at the 8:20 shows on February 21 and 22, joined the first night by Howard.)
The film was shot on location in Harlem primarily around 145th St., where Ayanna, a poet, is spending her last summer before heading off to college. She hangs around with her close group of friends, Shonté (Imani Lewis), Tenita (Alexis Marie Wint), and Jamila (Tashiana Washington), some of whom already have children and who don’t share the dreams of independence that drive Ayanna. Meanwhile, her mother, Sarita (Michelle Wilson), shows only a mild interest in her daughter, instead taking up with a series of men, searching for her own love. Upon meeting the slightly older Isaiah, a music producer dedicated to the legacy of his late jazz musician father, Ayanna at first plays coy, then heads full steam into a relationship with Isaiah, who appears to be more honest and dependable than most of the other guys in the community, who like talking trash and getting it on with any woman in their path. But when Ayanna suddenly faces an unexpected crisis, she has to decide what she wants for herself, her once bright future now possibly in question.
Premature is beautifully photographed in 16mm by Laura Valladao, giving the film a kind of timelessness, both modern and a throwback to an earlier era, attempting to capture a Harlem that is quickly undergoing gentrification, losing some of its identity; in some ways it is reminiscent of Horace Jenkins’s recently discovered and restored 1982 indie gem Cane River, in which a young woman about to go to college falls in love with a slightly older man who wants to be a poet, although Premature is far more accomplished in both storytelling and acting, has a feminist perspective, and purposely steps aside from issues of race, politics, and the legacy of slavery. Instead, Green and Howard, a playwright whose Stew closes at Walkerspace on February 22, focus purely on the love story between two black people who are practically living in a private dream world, as if their relationship exists on its own plane.
Their Harlem is not the one you usually see onscreen; it’s not a spoiler to say that there is no crime or violence in Premature, no side plots of drugs, prostitution, clashes with law enforcement, or other stereotypical sociocultural elements that usually creep into such narratives. Yet the gentle, sensitively told Premature, with a lively score that features Dave Eggar on solo cello and a mix of song styles from diverse musicians, is as much about Harlem and its black community as it is about a man and a woman who might be destined for each other. The film slips as it reaches its conclusion, stretching the limits of credulity as it devolves into a sentimentality and cliché it wisely avoids otherwise, but it also includes an unforgettable scene when the dreadlocked Ayanna takes a pair of scissors to her hair, a defining moment for the character and the movie itself. Green and Howard sought to make a different kind of black love story set in New York City, and that’s exactly what they have done, to all our benefit.