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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

First love hurts like hell in the wounding coming-of-age drama Premature

Illustration for article titled First love hurts like hell in the wounding coming-of-age drama Premature
Photo: IFC Films

Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. Because it’s Love Week at The A.V. Club, we’re recommending movies about love triangles.

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Premature (2019)

Congratulations to anyone whose first real relationship was entirely positive, nourishing, and soul-building. What the rest of us know is that first love can be as tumultuous as it is revelatory. In Rashaad Ernesto Green’s coming-of-age drama Premature, a young woman preparing to leave home for college falls into a summer romance with an older man. He challenges the boundaries she’s built to protect herself, fulfills her sexual desires, and breaks her heart in a way that causes her to question her entire identity. Her suspicions of his infidelity might be more damaging than the cheating itself, and that doubt manifests as a love triangle with devastating consequences.

Green co-wrote the screenplay with the film’s star, Zora Howard, and filmed on location in Harlem, where they’ve both lived. With quiet confidence, the filmmaker captures the fleeting insouciance of sticky summer days at family barbecues and the basketball court, and the joyful irresponsibility of languorous summer nights spent at overcrowded parties or watching the sunset on the Harlem River. It’s a film about the strange liminality of those three months between completing high school and starting college.

Howard delivers a raw and vulnerable performance as Ayanna, a poet used to recognizing other people in love or lust. Her friends are accustomed to her flagging down guys on their behalf (“You’re always trying to hook somebody up,” they say), but she holds herself separate from romance, rejecting a guy for pursuing a dalliance with her while still dating another girl. “One big game,” she bitterly says of love; Howard’s wariness and weariness hint at past rejections and disappointments.

Enter Isaiah (Joshua Boone), who catches Ayanna’s eye at the park. They share more than one glance, Green centering each in the frame so all we see is them looking at each other. Their growing relationship, built over long walks and long talks, plays out on gauzy 16mm, and then explicitly in bed. Green intentionally focuses on Ayanna during their sex scenes, and Howard’s gasps and facial expressions suggest her growing awareness of her own body. It’s an idyllic, all-enveloping summer romance… until it collapses, perhaps irrevocably, with the unexpected arrival of another woman in Isaiah’s apartment.

Who is this woman? Did Isaiah cheat on her with Ayanna or cheat on Ayanna with her? Howard fires off Ayanna’s questions with rapid-fire urgency, while Boone’s Isaiah lingers by the door rather than moving closer to her anger and confusion. And when that chasm opens up between them, all of Ayanna’s criticisms of herself flood into it. From here, Premature pivots toward questions of racial politics and age gaps in relationships: Although the other woman never again appears, the myriad differences between the two—she’s white and Ayanna is Black, she speaks to Isaiah with a casual intimacy Ayanna doesn’t share with him—derail the romance by undermining the heroine’s self-worth.

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Howard’s performance becomes increasingly brittle as Premature progresses, while the film’s evocative score—initially heavy on sensual jazz, which Isaiah uses to woo Ayanna—falls away. And when Ayanna makes a devastating decision about her future, Premature is empathetic: Green’s precise framing depicts the ramifications of Ayanna’s choice—a close-up of fingers grasping the edge of a white bathtub; an overhead shot of a swirl of blood running down a drain—without exploiting the pain it causes. Instead, Premature relies on Howard’s tenacious, nuanced performance to explore the toxic business of forming a love triangle with your own doubts. “What did I know of my heart at 17?” she wonders, and Ayanna’s hard-earned and bittersweet self-knowledge lingers, like the sting of an early, wounding relationship.

Availability: Premature is currently streaming on Hulu. It can also be rented or purchased digitally from Google Play, YouTube, Microsoft, and VUDU.

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