Synopsis: Seventeen year old Ayanna meets handsome and mysterious Isaiah in her path towards self-discovery. Her entire world is turned upside down as she travails on the rigorous terrain of young love on the summer before she leaves for college.
Stars: Zora Howard, Joshua Boone, Michelle Wilson, Alexis Marie Wint, Imani Lewis, Tashiana Washington, Myha’la Herrold
Director: Rashaad Ernesto Green
Running Length: 86 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: Seeing movies at film festivals is, honestly, often a crapshoot. Though the movies have been curated by a supposedly sensible staff there are times when you find yourself watching a selection and wondering how on earth the committee thought a crowd would respond to this title. Thankfully, the group behind the Twin Cities Film Festival have an exceedingly good feel not just for what will appeal to their festivalgoers but also what filmmakers/actors/projects could be the next buzzy project. It’s these films that are often selected to either open the festival or be the closing night title, so I always tend to pay close attention to what gets those coveted slots.
At the 11-day event this past year, Premature snagged that closing night position so I made sure to get it on my schedule and I was glad I did because it lived up to the hype. Catching a movie so early in its festival run can be difficult because it can fade from memory when it finds a wide-release date but that wasn’t the case here. Now, seven months later it’s finally debuting on the streaming service Hulu after winning a number of awards, including Film Independent’s Someone to Watch Award for director Rashaad Ernesto Green back in February.
When Ayanna (Zora Howard) meets Isaiah (Joshua Boone) during one hot summer in her Harlem, NY neighborhood, she isn’t looking for any kind of a relationship. She’s on her way to college in the fall and is tentative about getting involved with the older man, charming though he may be. Her poetry and journaling is her method of expression and she pours her feelings into lines that hold great power. When she inevitably finds herself moving forward with Isaiah, her life changes in ways she never expected and emotions of both pleasure and pain factor into her thoughts on building a future with him.
Co-written by Green and star Howard, this is a sensitive drama involving young love that doesn’t follow the typical trajectory we’re all used to seeing. Bucking most conventions of the romance genre, it gives voice to the black community in current, vibrant ways and you can feel its energy pulsating off screen from beginning to end. It’s a frank film, in language and sexuality, yes, but also in honesty of emotion and all feel entirely earned and justified. Simple resolutions don’t exist in Ayanna and Isaiah’s world and I appreciated seeing the world from that vantage point.
The script is one thing but the performances are what elevate Premature to that next level. Green has assembled a hell of a fine cast, from bit players to supporting actors playing Ayanna’s pseudo Greek chorus girlfriends. Though made on a tiny budget you get the feeling all of these people have known each other for years and Green just made a few phone calls to get them all together to shoot. Boone and Howard have a fiery chemistry that is so very rare to see and Boone makes what could be a problematic character less so with his gentle approach. The movie belongs to Howard, though, and not just because she’s written an especially strong female lead for herself. Ayanna’s imperfections is what makes her so understandable and whether she’s struggling with communicating with her mother (a strong Michelle Wilson) or reacting to a perceived slight from Isaiah, we understand her frustration more than we are aware. It’s a bold, brave, memorable turn.
Premature was always going to be a tough sell even without the quarantine and pandemic to quiet it’s already small release in theaters. Now that it’s going straight to streaming on Hulu there’s a chance more people will discover it early but it’s a true gem that you should get on the bandwagon early for. It falls into the same step with If Beale Street Could Talk with presenting straightforward black relationships without resorting to cloying clichés. That should be celebrated and encouraged.
It’s the 31st of December and I’m furiously typing away to put together my end of the year list. Forget about me making a Best of the Decade list — I’d be working on it for weeks. Instead, take a read at the movies that have sparked joy in me over the past twelve months and which have made my eyes glow red with anger.
This year I made a promise to myself to review every new movie I had the good fortune to screen/see in theaters and I’m pleased to see that I kept that promise throughout. It required more of my time and involved prioritizing some work but I feel the end result was worth it. I hope to continue that as we approach the NINTH year of The MN Movie Man. What a wild ride.
Although I’m slightly aghast at the amount of movies I saw this year (look below, I’m a bit horrified to reveal the number here), I’ve learned a lot by seeking out films that are off the beaten path and not just sticking to the mainstream releases. Critics nowadays seem to be only bringing attention to movies that are easily accessible but I think we should all be working harder to push ourselves into highlighting and championing the smaller films that are being pushed out of theaters by an endless array of blockbusters (which I also quite like, by the way). If you’re a critic and reading this — I challenge you to review on your blog/channel/page at least one movie a month that didn’t get a mainstream release. It was a huge creative step forward for me this year — try it for yourself!
As always, I’ve appreciated your feedback, your patronage, and your general presence in my blog. Even if you read this everyday but have never commented or made contact I can still tell you’ve been here and that means a lot.
Best Wishes to you and yours for a most Happy New Year!
~Joe (The MN Movie Man)
5. Us – It was just two years ago that Jordan Peele’s feature directorial debut Get Out landed on top of my Best of 2017 list. Fears of a sophomore slump were put to rest with the arrival of Us, a more straight-forward horror film from Peele that frightened me something good. There’s less of the social commentary that was present in Get Out but Us does have some interesting things to say if you read between the bloody lines. This was one of the few movies I saw twice in theaters and both times it was highly effective, thanks in no small part to Lupita Nyong’o’s incredible lead performance. Back in March I felt like Nyong’o could be an Oscar contender and hopefully in a few weeks it will happen – she’s part of an excellent cast telling Peele’s twisted tale. So good.
4. Apollo 11 – After the languid First Man in 2018, I thought I had had my fill of space movies for a bit and certainly didn’t think there was there anything more to learn about the Apollo missions that hadn’t already been covered. Then Apollo 11 snuck into theaters and sent me out of orbit with praise. A staggering documentary that features an astonishing amount of never before seen footage remastered so that it looked like it was filmed yesterday, watching this brought out the happy tears in me. Gorgeous to look at and filled with edge-of-your-seat moments, it’s one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen.
3. The Farewell – The good buzz on The Farewell followed it into theaters after it debuted to strong acclaim in Sundance. From director Lulu Wang and based on her real life family, it’s a sweet but not saccharine look at a different culture and the way they choose to deal with death. I appreciated there were so many opportunities for viewers like myself to learn more about Chinese customs in addition to watching a beautifully touching story unfold. Known for her more comedic work, Awkwafina logged an impressive dramatic debut but the movie belongs to luminous Shuzhen Zhao as the grandmother kept in the dark by her family about her recent diagnosis of a terminal disease. You’ll cry, but not for the reasons you’d expect.
2. 1917 – Among the many successes that 1917 can claim is keeping my attention during what is traditionally a rough genre for me. Diverting from your standard war film tropes, writer/director Sam Mendes (Skyfall) and his co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns side-step the landmines of recreating a well-known incident from the first World War and opt to go with something more personal. Shot to look like the entire two hour movie was filmed in one take, aside from its stunning achievement in cinematography it has two appealing stars and a moving story to tell. I was fully engaged from frame one until the last credit onscreen and once this opens wide in January 2020 I think audiences will feel the same way.
1. A Hidden Life – I’ve spent the last two months since I saw A Hidden Life thinking about it almost daily and while I knew it would be in my top five of the year, it’s ability to stay so emotionally fresh with me kept pushing it higher up in the ranks. I honestly could have flipped a coin between this and 1917 but in the end writer/director Terrence Malick’s magnificent film was the only choice for me. Though it has disappointingly been given a paltry release, I’ve been urging everyone to get to the theater and see this pronto because it has some truly majestic moments that deserve to be viewed on the big screen. Malick’s film centers around a Austrian conscientious objector during WWII and the devastating effect it has not just on him but his family struggling to keep going in his absence. It’s a somber film but filled with some of the best views I saw all year and two quietly powerful lead performances that hold it all together. It will still have an impact on the small screen but if you have any chance to see A Hidden Life at your local moviehouse…do it. It’s my favorite film of the year.
5. Dumbo (2019) – Even though Disney will wind up the year the most profitable studio thanks to their owning most of the big franchise pictures that made billions, they can’t escape that they released some stinkers in 2019 as well. You’ll notice their live-action remake of Aladdin is down in Dis(Honorable) mentions and while a live-action The Lion King didn’t totally sully the memory of the animated original it didn’t make the kind of money it was predicted to. I actually enjoyed the new Lady & The Tramp on Disney+ but Tim Burton’s update of Dumbo was a real mess. Adding new characters, taking what was a simple story, and drowning it in excess, it was an eye-sore and it made my butt-sore. They say an elephant never forgets but they’d definitely make an effort after watching this three-ring disaster.
4. Serenity (2019) – One of the first movies I saw in theaters last January was the much-delayed Serenity. Boasting a bevy of A-list Oscar favorites, this mystery wanted to be steamy and twisty but would up being a laughably bad attempt at meta-filmmaking that was sunk quickly after opening. Relying on one totally crazy twist that isn’t hard to spot, actually, viewers didn’t watch the movie as much as they sort of just bore witness to it all falling apart in front of them. I like almost everyone in this and would never turn my nose up at a modern day noir, but the route Serenity travels on is too far-fetched. Jump ship on this one fast.
3. Her Smell – Numerous critics I respect have Her Smell on their Best of the Year list and would probably be wide-eyed to see it as my #3 worst of the year but this experience in agony was too much to handle. Star Elisabeth Moss earned praise for diving head-first into the role of a self-destructive singer whose years of hard living alienate her from everyone she loves but it comes off like Moss was just riffing in rehearsal and it was caught on camera. The move alienates you almost from the start and spends it’s first hour following Moss as her character embarks on a repulsive spiral into darkness. Full disclosure – I watched this for about twenty minutes before fast-forwarding to the latter half which I had heard made the first part worth the wait. It didn’t.
2. Aquarela – I honestly have never tried so hard not to fall asleep in the middle of a movie than I have watching this documentary. Boasting new filming techniques and shown with a frame rate to create images that felt close to lifelike, the bells and whistles can’t mask this is a supremely boring film. Charting various forms of water, it’s almost entirely dialogue-free and set to a score that will have you plugging your ears if you haven’t already run for the door. About halfway through, I got the feeling audiences were being tested on their stamina in finding the end purpose and eventually allowed myself to close my eyes. I didn’t fall asleep but could have easily conked out – yet I kept one eye open just so can say that “I Survived Aquarela”.
1. Child’s Play (2019) – Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking the original Child’s Play from 1988 was some untouchable classic – because watching it again shortly after seeing this heinously awful remake (as a palate cleanser) reminded me the one that started it all has its share of clumsy moments. Yet it remains a well-oiled machine of a film, occasional issues aside. That’s not the case with this ill-advised update that’s almost insulting to watch. No real thought went into this, including the performances. Aubrey Plaza should be fined some sort of audience taxation for her dreadful acting – the crummy new doll is even a better actor than her. I was so mad coming out of this movie…and I’m still mad today. Worst of the year, no question about it.
Most Misunderstood: Alita: Battle Angel – this is one that had so much potential but perhaps was too big of a reach even for it’s high-flying filmmakers. I enjoyed this overblown sci-fi film boasting impressive visuals and a motion-captured leading actress. True, this was adapted from an Asian source and the American-ization of it didn’t help, but I have a feeling this is one that people will discover as time goes on and wonder why the hinted at sequel never materialized. A disappointing box office take likely means we won’t get a follow-up on the same scale…but perhaps goodwill will win out. Honorable Mention: Black Christmas (2019)
Joe’s Humble Pie Award of 2019 (movies that turned out differently than I expected going in): Angel Has Fallen – A silly Gerard Butler vehicle gets some extra attention on my end of the year list? Well it deserves it for being an entertaining entry in Butler’s surprise franchise that casts him as a government agent protecting our national security. The first film, Olympus Has Fallen, was mediocre but fun while the sequel, London Has Fallen, is ghoulishly terrible. I didn’t have high hopes for this one because it seemed to come out of nowhere, but the sneak attack worked to its advantage. Totally was better than I ever thought it would be. Honorable Mention: Midway (2019)
Two Movies You Probably Haven’t Seen But Should: Wild Rose & Luce – I already feel like I’ve been talking about Wild Rose too much and I’m building people up to be let down but it truly is one of those rare indie films that has the goods but not many people have caught on yet. Star Jessie Buckley (Judy) turns in one of my favorite performances of the year, her acting is grand but her singing is off the charts. She could record an album tomorrow and have an entirely other career if she wanted. Sort of in the vein of A Star is Born but not nearly as tragic, it’s my new “go-to” when people ask me what they should watch.
Special mention to Luce for featuring Octavia Spencer’s best performance to date, which ironically isn’t getting any attention in the end of the year awards. What Spencer does in this adaptation of a play is nothing less than extraordinary and coupled with star on the rise Kelvin Harrison, Jr. (Waves), Naomi Watts, and Tim Roth you have a recipe for a movie that’s challenging and will spark discussions after. Absolutely keep your eye open for this one to show up on streaming services soon.
Click HERE for a full listing of films seen in 2019 Total Movies Seen in the Theater: 150 Total Movies Seen at Home: 286 Grand Total for 2019 (not counting films seen multiple times): 430 Where I Saw the Most Movies – Showplace ICON (46!!)