Premature” captures a young woman who knows she’s on the precipice of immense change, is hungry for that change, but when it finally comes is still surprised, hurt, yet ultimately strengthened by it. The second feature from director and co-writer Rashaad Ernesto Green, “Premature” gives a sensitive look at being young, black, and in love in New York City through the relationship of Ayana (Zora Howard) and Isaiah (Joshua Boone). No disrespect to Green, Boone, or the other collaborators, but this movie belongs to Zora Howard, the star and co-writer, who inhabits the role of Ayana with poise and poetry, a performance that rings with the authenticity and vulnerability of personal experience.

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Ayana is a bundle of contradictions. She’s a budding writer who protects her work with a fierce privacy. She’s caught between the teenager she was, and still is to her clique of friends, and the adult she feels she’ll become when she leaves home. Spending her last summer in Harlem before leaving for school, she’s planning on just hanging out with friends and enjoying the life she knows before everything changes. But despite keeping her head down, she catches the eye of Isaiah, a slightly older man who’s new to the neighborhood, having moved to the city to produce and compose music.

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Isaiah is different from the boys Ayana is used to and wins her over with his sincerity and recognition that she’s also different from the rest of her friends. Green and Howard are excellent and capturing the little moments that breed intimacy in relationship, like a boisterous salutation to the city after the pair wake up together on a rooftop after a hot summer night. Green doesn’t shy away from celebrating the physical intimacy of the couple, striking the right balance of showing without exploiting. Possibly the most rewarding aspect of the film is how the pair connect and interact creatively. When Isaiah peeks inside the notebook Ayana furtively writes in, he recognizes her musings as perfect lyrics and encourages her to share them. Meanwhile, Ayana pushes Isaiah to finish his compositions and step outside of the shadow of his late father, a figure of both inspiration and intimidation to Isaiah.

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But a story of first love almost always leads to a story of first heartbreak. As Ayana seeks comfort from her mother and friends, both they and the audience are able to see how much she’s been changed by her summer with Isaiah. The moments spent with her support system are affecting, because they show Ayana caught in flux between her past and future, visibly different from her childhood friends yet still in need of their steadying influence.   While she entertained thoughts of putting her own dreams on hold to be with Isaiah, their split reminds her of her passion and strengthens her resolve to develop her creative talents. Green engineers a poignant ending that brings their work together in a song, in a manner that pays tribute to their relationship and how they both grew through it.

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In a movie landscape cluttered with coming of age stories, it’s worth asking what distinguishes a straightforward example such as “Premature.” Two things do – authenticity and Zora Howard. Howard is a breakout talent and she endows this story with grace and passion. [B+]

Check out all our coverage from the 2019 Sundance Film Festival here.