Review: Advantageous (Phang, 2015) – SFIFF 2015

Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

In the future, terrorist attacks are commonplace; society has become even more obsessed with youth and beauty; the gap between the rich and the poor has only widened; and, for the ever-shrinking middle class, competition for good jobs, good opportunities, and the good schools that lead to both is tremendously fierce. Single mother Gwen Koh (Jacqueline Kim) and her daughter Jules (Samantha Kim) inhabit this precarious setting. Though as the spokesperson for the giant biotech firm Center for Advanced Health and Living Gwen has one of those good jobs, it still seems as though mother and daughter are barely squeaking by. In a science fiction play on the upper middle class nightmare that not getting into the right pre-school will eventually lead to homelessness, Advantageous depicts a world where certain “advantages,” such as a good education, are prerequisites for staving away poverty.

Young as she is, Jules already feels the pressure to be perfect. With a single income and little financial cushion, Gwen watches anxiously, tenderly, as her daughter negotiates these outsized burdens. But matters only worsen for the duo when Gwen is abruptly laid off by her employer, who wants a newer (and younger) face to represent their youth-seeking products.

The timing couldn’t be worse. Tuition is due for Jules’s prestigious new school, but Gwen doesn’t have the funds. Neither family nor friends are able or willing to help.  When her former employer approaches Gwen with a risky new job proposition, she’s hardly in a position to turn it down, even if it means becoming a guinea pig for the company’s latest services.

Advantageous won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance for “Collaborative Vision,” but it should have also earned praise for its quietly stunning visuals of a future that seems neither familiarly near nor impossibly remote–and on a strict budget, to boot. The locale feels like an emptied out Upper East Side (empty, it turns out, because the filmmakers couldn’t afford to people it) but somehow grander and stranger and more sinister all at once.

As for the storyline, my assessment is: not bad for sci-fi. The future it imagines is not implausible. (In fact, in the months since viewing the film, I have on many occasions wondered if it’s more prescient than I had originally believed as–subjectively, at least–terrorism, the income gap, homelessness all seem on the rise.) And it thankfully refrains from indulging in pseudo-scientific babble, keeping its technology black-boxed from us. Its focus is more philosophical, more contemplative, probing the definition of human. Are we simply matter? If so, which matter matters? Or is there something intangible about us, something beyond even memory, perhaps as quiet and obscure as the memory of a memory?

Unfortunately, Advantageous goes too far in answering those questions. With its ultimate message about the transcendence of human love, the hope it plants is definite and therefore unsatisfying. Also, for reasons I won’t divulge, the film loses some steam in its last third. Still, a strong sophomore feature by local director Jennifer Phang. See her San Francisco International Film Festival Q&A below.