You’ll spend the rest of “Premature” and well after leaving the theater trying to reclaim the sensation of seeing its star Zora Howard for the first time. These kind of star is born moments don’t happen often, but knowing what’s coming, director Rashaad Ernesto Green wisely lingers on Howard for narrative purposes and otherwise as she stares off into the distance as Ayanna, a high school senior riding the subway home to Harlem. You don’t realize she’s with friends at first, alone with her thoughts, but she’s thinking of them, catching a guy on the other end of the car eying on of them and taking matters into her own hands when he’s too bashful to approach, making sure she gets his digits for her friend. Though she’ll never be the one calling up herself, it’s because she is good at having guys’ numbers.
Howard is credited as a co-writer on “Premature” with Green, and Ayanna has a sense of purpose that suggests the two knew exactly where they could lean into her extraordinary acting chops rather than 10 minutes of exposition to get the same point across. While Ayanna never has to articulate a distrust of men, you see it around the edges of her life, whether it’s her mother cuddling up with a different guy on their couch depending on the day or her friend T, caring for a baby with no father around. She’ll soon be off to Bucknell, so it’s easy at first to brush off the advances of Isaiah (Joshua Boone), a handsome and clearly thoughtful friend of a friend who just arrived in Harlem, but when they meet again at a laundromat, his persistence – and significant charm – wear her down.
One of the best moments you’ll ever see in a film is when the night turns into morning, and he asks her to stay, with Green again letting the entire moment register on Howard’s face, the slight confusion of hearing for the first time, “You don’t need to go,” and the affirmation that she may be able to trust him. But surrendering herself over to what she’s feeling rather than what she suspects the end result could be is both glorious to witness and heartrending in the time that follows when the decision always look like it’s going to pay off. Green ups the ante considerably by crafting a swoon-worthy romance on par with “Love Jones,” “Medicine for Melancholy” and the films of Gina Prince-Bythewood, but “Premature” makes it known early that its sympathies are firmly with Ayanna and although you worry that she looks for reasons to protect herself, misinterpreting Isiah’s work with a singer as a music producer for flirting or keeping some things from him that he might be able to ease her mind about, the film is exceptional at showing how her instincts can serve her well just as much as they can undercut her happiness.
Howard is spectacular in the part, displaying a Bronx bravado that’s been Ayanna’s shield while figuring out who she wants to be, and Boone is no slouch, either, smooth and sensitive enough to be a compelling enough reason for her to dump all her best laid plans, yet revealing his nerves in unexpected ways. Green and Howard’s script is both tender and alive, feeling simultaneously timeless and of the moment in its observations of what possibilities there are for the pair both romantically and otherwise as well as what stands in their way. While the future isn’t promised, this much is sure — “Premature” is the kind of film that makes it feel like anything is possible for those who made it.
“Premature” opens on February 21st in Los Angeles at the Monica Film Center, the NoHo 7 and the Pasadena Playhouse 7 and in New York at the IFC Center.