Directed by Rashaad Ernesto Green and co-written by him and Zora Howard (who also stars), Premature follows Ayanna, a confident, no-nonsense 17-year-old woman living in Harlem. She enjoys a summer of freedom and fun with her girlfriends before heading off to college in the fall. Soon, she meets and falls for Isaiah (Joshua Boone), a charming, older man pursuing a career in music.

Ayanna is at first skeptical of Joshua but soon opens up to him as they sit by a river as the sun sets, talking about their dreams and run through a lively street parade, full of life. Their chemistry feels raw, physical and warm. Nothing is manufactured.

As a young woman, experiencing a strong desire and intense attraction to someone for the first time can be startling and sometimes scary. We see this in Ayanna’s eyes as she gets to know Isaiah. She welcomes the feeling but is soon swept away with it. Howard delivers a performance that builds in intensity and depth as the film unfolds and captures the nuances of quiet strength and vulnerability. In its exploration of love, the film is not attached to an ongoing debate or a mainstream agenda and seems like it was made completely outside of those confines, which is often rare. It honors feeling, color, language, passion, discomfort, and hurt and drops the audience into this world without an explanation.

The world of the film is harsh and beautiful. Harlem is presented in catcalls, heat, frustration and noise but there’s also hope. It’s not a soft world, but the love story is allowed to function as a sort of softness, a balm that both characters cling to and pull from. Ayanna’s friends argue and trade playful banter with Isaiah’s friends on the basketball court, while Ayanna navigates a rocky relationship with her own mother and Isaiah struggles to find closure for his own familial issues. Nothing is easy here, but love makes things better.

Perhaps what makes the film so distinct is its total commitment to the various stages of burgeoning love and the unraveling of that. Shot on 16mm film in bright magentas, reds and golds, it feels timeless because it is purely and unapologetically concerned with the immersive state of Black love, inclusive of the love between Ayanna and her friends (who all deliver amazing performances) and the not always easy love between Ayanna and her mother. There are no tacked-on plot contrivances or tropes.

I first saw Premature while tucked into the back row of a theater at a film festival last summer. I laughed, cried, smiled, felt and gripped my own seat during the film. I was returning to something. Initially, I thought perhaps it was a return to Black love stories of the past, Jason’s Lyric or Love and Basketball, but soon I realized that I was returning to myself; to my own experiences with love. Watching the film made me think of being young and in love while living in Washington, D.C. years ago. The summer was sticky and wet, and gentrification had not yet touched certain areas. I remember visiting Anacostia, sitting amongst a bed of red flowers as I looked into the eyes of a lover. I remember walking through the Northwest streets, laughing and talking with this person. I forgot time because the only thing that mattered was touch.

Touch and physical intimacy are important in Premature. One early love scene between Ayanna and Isaiah lasts long, and Ayanna’s experience of sexual pleasure is captured fully. Her sexuality is not something to be hidden, cut out or sanitized with respectability politics. It just is. It’s pleasure, it’s slow, soft and beautiful and overwhelming, as love can be. We are invited to sit and experience Ayanna’s sexual awakening as if it were our own. There’s something powerful about a Black woman’s pleasure being rendered onscreen by a Black woman co-writer/performer in Howard. I found myself growing more invested and engaged in Ayanna and Isaiah’s relationship as the film progressed, just as my fears for what lay ahead of them started to mount. I wondered if the same Harlem summer love could withstand pain and fear. 

While Green and Howard plunge us into the immersive joy of being in love, the film also explores the difficult choices that Ayanna has to make when love and intimacy become painful and difficult. This film explores the very real ways that love heals, that it transforms, that it tests and changes us.

I remember love. I remember picking up a lover up from an airport and having my stomach fly up into the sky as they departed days later. I knew what it felt like to be seen, fully by another person. I remember a fiery argument with that same person, which I feel in my body to this very day. There are scenes in this film that transported me back to that argument and to the feelings of dread that accompanied it. We often want to qualify and categorize love into what is neat, safe and hopeful but for anyone who’s ever experienced the sweeping, magnetic force of that emotion, we know it to be many things. Premature explores the ways that we remember and honor it.

Premature is in theaters on February 21, 2020.

Photo: IFC Films

Nijla Mu’min is an award-winning screenwriter and director from the East Bay Area. Her debut feature film Jinn won the Grand Jury Award for Screenwriting at the 2018 South by Southwest Film Festival and is currently streaming on Amazon Prime. She is currently developing her second feature film, Mosswood Park.

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