Premium (2006) / Comedy-Romance

MPAA Rated: Not rated, but probably PG-13 for some language
Running Time: 97 min.

Cast: Dorian Missick, Zoe Saldana, Hill Harper, Frankie Faison, William Sadler, Tonya Pinkins, Eva Pigford, Sean Nelson, Keith Nobbs, Pete Chatmon
Director: Pete Chatmon

Screenplay: Pete Chatmon

Like many up-and-coming filmmakers trying to make it in today's film world, writer-director Pete Chatmon has decided to go with what he knows, delivering a great deal of humor and truth in a semi-autobiographical effort.  Premium tells the tale of New Jersey resident, Reginald "Cool" Coolidge (Missick, Lucky Number Slevin), a 28-year-old broke-as-a-joke actor who lives with his mother, works at his soon-to-be-stepfather's gas station, and who not only finds that parts for African-Americans are limited to street hustlers, rapists, and murderers, but that he isn't even "Black enough" to qualify getting those parts.  Cool's focus shifts when he receives a surprise visit to the gas station in the form of his former fiancée, Charli (Saldana, Guess Who), who is set to be married very soon to a well-to-do lawyer named Ed (Harper, He Got Game).  Seeing Charli tears open not-altogether-healed wounds, as Cool finds himself trying to win her back all over again, despite her constant admonitions that he isn't wanted back in her life after not being there for her the first time.

Premium starts out in similar fashion to another independent African-American production on the difficulties of being a Black actor trying to make a living, Robert Townsend's Hollywood Shuffle.  (Is it a coincidence that both Townsend and Chatmon relate very similar experiences in casting calls, menial jobs, and that the main protagonists finally break through as actors by playing postal workers?  Perhaps.) However, don't dismiss the film just because you've seen something similar before, as it soon develops into something more when Cool tries to force himself into a romance that has had its door closed to him for three years.  While Chatmon's film does traverse over familiar romantic comedy hurdles in contriving ways for the two former lovers to run into one another, where Premium succeeds is primarily due to the insightfulness of Chatmon's characterizations, and some very strong performances by Saldana and Harper during the film's key dramatic moments.

Chatmon has already been compared to Spike Lee in his vision, talent, and ability to inject important social messages in his films with humor and pizzazz, and that label certainly bears true here.  He even casts himself in a prominent role as a famous director with a look and a film not dissimilar to Spike's more contemporary works.  Like Spike, Chatmon knows his characters through and through, drawing from a wealth of personal experiences to create an atmosphere where interactions among them strike true with interesting, and very honest fashion. 

Although a low budget release, one of Chatmon's strengths is in figuring out ways to make his film without it costing much.  A car crash is kept completely off screen, as is an important wedding scene, and the development of a major motion picture release.  However, where Chatmon is truly blessed is in getting Saldana on board, a very talented actress who has already appeared in major Hollywood releases, and who breathes a great deal of life in making Charli a well-rounded, complex character where a lesser talent might have been just another pretty face.  Chatmon also fills out supporting roles with solid character actors like Frankie Faison (In Good Company, The Cookout) and William Sadler (Kinsey, The Battle of Shaker Heights), who also deliver above and beyond what their roles call for.  Chatmon handles these professionals very well for a first effort, which bodes quite well for his future.

In the end, Premium is more of a showcase of Chatmon's talent than it is a romantic comedy that will set the world on fire.  There is an inherent familiarity to the main story, and also some occasional moments of forced happenstance that does make it seem rather conventional, although underneath the formula, the infusion of Chatmon's life experience into the roles keeps it a cut above most others who've tread down the same path.  The final scenes in particular are set up in an effort to offer a few surprises, and while many viewers will guess just what's going to happen long before, Chatmon does manage to keep things true to the characters enough to respect the reasons for his story manipulations. 

Premium should meet well with audiences who enjoy independent romantic comedies, and will especially strike a resonant chord for those who want to see more positive African-American roles portrayed in smaller films, rather than the usual criminal element depictions that normally get stuck in low budget endeavors.  While Saldana commands our attention whenever she's on screen, Chatmon proves to be the real artist to watch in the future. 

Qwipster's rating: 

©2007 Vince Leo