The dialogue churns, pulses and all but dances in the absorbing romantic drama “Premature,” but it also knows when to grind to a meaningful halt. The talk begins flowing in a crowded subway car, where Ayanna (Zora Howard) and her girlfriends are immersed in a conversation that — more than any turns of the plot or moves of the camera — seems to propel the story along on its own fleet, funny rhythms. It follows them off the train, down the street, into someone’s apartment and onto a nearby basketball court, merging with the sights and sounds of a New York summer evening.
The chatter stops and silence sets in only sometime later, when Ayanna finds herself hanging out with a new friend, Isaiah (the charismatic Joshua Boone), whose watchful eyes say pretty much everything worth saying. Which isn’t to say that Isaiah isn’t a good talker himself; far from it. He might actually be too good, given his tendency to rhapsodize at length about the body’s molecular vibrations and the potential for transcendence in art. But his idealism and creative aspirations only endear him more to Ayanna, herself an aspiring poet whose spoken-word verse occasionally floods the soundtrack.
Directed with bristling immediacy by Rashaad Ernesto Green (“Gun Hill Road”), “Premature” could be classified as a love story, a coming-of-age drama, a cautionary tale (the title offers a clue) and a portrait of young black women and men finding their way in contemporary New York. But it also strikes me as a movie about the uses and occasional uselessness of language, with stop-and-go verbal cadences that seem particularly attentive to what its characters say and don’t say. Ayanna’s initial wariness aside, she and Isaiah fall for each other hard and fast — and the movie, knowing that the first flush of love can render words especially superfluous, fills in the gaps with some of the more sensual and emotionally communicative love scenes in recent movie memory.
The two barely acknowledge the differences between them — he’s a music producer in his 20s, she’s 17 and about to start college — or the challenges that might ensue as a result. Those challenges do rear their head eventually, often in quick, buzz-killing bursts — an ex-girlfriend who comes knocking, an argument that takes an angry turn. One development sends the movie spinning in a direction that might have come across as dramatically forced or clumsy, but is instead played with sensitivity and understatement.
Ayanna’s tendency to guard her innermost thoughts and feelings is not a defense against Isaiah alone. She can riff, banter and hold her own with anyone, but it’s instructive to see when and why she clams up around her friends (warmly played by Imani Lewis, Alexis Marie Wint and Tashiana Washington), and especially around her mother (Michelle Wilson), with whom she has a close, sometimes combative relationship. A lot of the time she simply looks on and listens — to her friends and Isaiah as they heatedly debate the challenges of being black in America (and whether men and women bear those challenges equally), or to Isaiah and his colleagues as they wax poetic about their artistic calling.
These discussions sometimes feel like topical asides — hardly irrelevant to the main matter at hand, but clearly borne of an impulse to say something smart and meaningful. What’s remarkable about “Premature” is how much Howard says with her silences alone. It’s worth noting that she co-wrote the script with Green, and their restraint on the page finds a skillful complement in Howard’s performance on the screen. To watch Ayanna quietly think her way through each situation — whether she’s taking pleasure in a new experience or weighing the consequences of a difficult decision — is to watch a person coming into being, not a moment too soon or late.
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