Adolescence is a troubling time for almost everyone. Our teenage years are a time for growth, but that growth often comes from negative experiences. We learn about our place in the world, assess our past selves, and try to move on to become better. If we’re lucky, we overcome those negative events in our past and learn from them in the best way possible. Plenty of films in the past decade have assessed this transition period between childhood and adulthood to varying degrees of success. Premature is the latest of these efforts, an indie from up and comer Rashaad Ernesto Green, in his second feature after his 2011 debut Gun Hill Road.
The focus of the film is a young black girl named Ayanna, played by the wonderful Zora Howard. It’s the summer before Ayanna is due to go off to college, and the film follows her sudden relationship with Isaiah, a man who has already reached his adulthood. As her relationship with Isaiah has its ups and downs, Ayanna is forever changed in her connection to herself and the people around her. Howard is the heart of the film, able to convey a blissful sense of being in love along with a youthful naivety, and she is able to make her transformation into her full self distinct and powerful along the way. It is a film about finding yourself, and Howard makes that grueling process convincing and believable.
Premature has an intimate feel to it, with a wide cast of characters and a large variety of creative ideas and compelling scenes. I was admittedly skeptical of the puppy love between Ayanna and Isaiah in the beginning of the film, but the schmaltz of the first act has a clear purpose. Though Ayanna begins blissfully in love, later scenes between them lack the intimacy that they contained before. Frenetic close ups with smooth music and narration of loving and longing poetry from Ayanna are instead replaced with distant, unbroken shots of cold, cruel stillness. As the two begin to drift apart due to several factors, you feel Ayanna’s worldview shifting. She is forced to reevaluate her feelings for Isaiah as well as her previous and more gullible self, and there’s a compelling sense of transformation. That’s not all the movie has to offer though, as it touches on several themes of black existence throughout the story. One long scene in a recording studio revolves around a debate of the value of art regardless of political consciousness, and it’s a wonderful meditation on the process of creation and expression. A similar scene comes not long after as the gender divide in the black community is scathingly taken to task. In all of these things Ayanna is a passive observer, but she finds her own initiative when she ends up pregnant with Isaiah’s child. This development is what makes her start questioning her state of being, the unborn child serving as a powerful symbol of her uncertainties.
This is a unique film in the coming of age genre, in that it doesn’t feel as if it’s especially pandering to a teen audience. Films like Booksmart and The Spectacular Now paint compelling portraits of adolescence, but Premature has a different feel to it than those do. For one, Ayanna does not hold the self-confidence and snootiness than the protagonists of some of these films do. She is very much in a state of confusion and gestation throughout the film, maturing into her own woman as the film progresses. She doesn’t have it all figured out, and more importantly, she doesn’t think that she does. A lot of these films find their lead characters learning from being knocked down a couple of pegs, but Ayanna spends the whole film growing, slowly but surely. A striking scene toward the end shows that Ayanna is clearly more confident and in control. She knows what she wants and is no longer afraid to exist as simply herself.
Premature is an extremely admirable indie flick, one that respects its audience without strictly pandering to it. Green crafts a compelling image of the end of adolescence, and Howard and Josh Boone play off each other wonderfully all throughout. The decision to have meditations on parts of life that never really change make the viewing experience more compelling for those who may have already completed their growing process, while speaking unique truths to those who may have not. The ending is especially powerful, and sums up a film that might be about teens, but truly speaks to all ages and walks of life.