By Kim Voynar
In the exquisitely crafted film Advantageous, director Jennifer Phang (Half-Life) explores a not-too-distant future where technology has advanced to the point that the need for human workers is diminishing. Consequently, only those with the most desirable attributes, highest connections and right looks have a shot at success, while the rest are presumably relegated to the rungs of the unseen lower classes. Jacqueline Kim, who also co-wrote and co-produced, plays Gwen Koh, the popular spokesperson for the Center for Advanced Health and Living, whose comfortable life with her daughter and confidence in herself are shattered when the Center decides that the beautiful-but-40ish Gwen is too old to be the branding face of their youth-preserving technology.
At the same time, Gwen’s daughter Jules (Samantha Kim) is hoping desperately to be accepted into one of the most prestigious schools; the pressure is immense, and Jules’ entire future depends upon which school she gets accepted into – and whether her mother can afford to give Jules the advantages she needs to succeed. Gwen’s position on the social ladder, already precarious in an tech-based economy when women are being told to stay at home and leave the jobs for the men, is further jeopardized when a recruiter informs her that there’s an unspecified “flag” on her resume from a former employer that’s preventing her from getting another job. Desperate to provide her daughter the advantages she will need to survive, Gwen agrees to become the first “client” for the Center’s newest youth-enhancing procedure, the details of which Phang keeps deliberately vague until near the end of the tale, making Gwen’s situation that much more poignant.
It can be a dicey proposition to weave social commentary into a narrative story without crossing the line into storytelling as agitprop, but Phang and Kim handle the issues their script addresses with a careful hand. It’s surely not coincidental that it’s the women in Phang’s future world who take the brunt of the economic impact of technological advances on the job market resulting in fewer jobs for human beings. It’s her view of the social value of women being tied inexorably to youth and beauty, though, that’s painfully pertinent in a year when the dearth of women receiving Oscar nominations has been of note, along with things like Gamergate and outspoken, intelligent women like Lena Dunham and writer Lindy West being attacked almost daily through social media with alarming vitriol.
In Phang’s imaginary future, it’s pretty much the same-old, same-old: As men grow older and wiser, they morph into handsome “silver foxes” without losing stride on the career or social desirability fronts. As women grow older and wiser, though, their perceived worth diminishes while those aging men chase after younger, newer versions to upgrade to. Phang’s tale imagines a reality where a woman could choose to “upgrade” herself to a younger and thereby more desirable version. You don’t have to be a woman working in the film industry to relate to (or fear) such a thing, though Hollywood is perhaps closer to the future we see here than anywhere else and, sadly, populated by a lot of women who would quite likely line up around the block to take advantage of it.
Script-wise, Phang and Kim do an excellent job here of honing things down to the marrow of the theme without much superfluous flotsam getting in the way of the storytelling. Phang as a director excels at the art of “show, don’t tell,” and she’s clearly directed her actors to follow that lead; the broad strokes of the story structure are inked in black here, but it’s the performances that flesh out the bones of that story with the deeply moving, layered performances that emphasize the complexity of these characters and, by extension, ourselves. Jacqueline Kim as Gwen emotes the quiet strength and determination of a mother determined to protect her daughter no matter the cost, and in later scenes when she’s holding back revealing the full truth to her daughter, the agony of her decision reads in her face like a blurry road map to a mother’s heart. Samantha Kim (no relation) is by turns sweetly plaintive and filled with adolescent fury as the daughter who doesn’t understand the sacrifice her mother makes for her until it’s too late. Ken Jeong surprises here with an excellent, quietly dramatic turn, and Jennifer Ehle as Gwen’s boss, who’s in charge of the Center’s latest technological miracle, delivers a nuanced performance that walks the line between being slightly sinister and genuinely sympathetic to Gwen’s plight.
It’s worth noting that the special effects in Advantageous that set the tone for a near-future world are quite well done, particularly for a sci-fi film that presumably didn’t have a huge Hollywood budget. Much like Phang’s previous film Half-Life, or one of my other favorite indie sci-fi films, Shane Carruth’s Primer, a lot of thought was clearly given to how to define this world and this technology on an indie budget without looking cheap; there’s no duct tape under the hood showing here. The technological advances shown here are, for the most part, maybe next or perhaps next-next generation, which smartly avoids any need to get too fancy with the props and SFX. Phang plays this more as a human story than a technological one, keeping her story tightly lensed on her characters as they navigate this world where humans are increasingly redundant, skewing the supply-demand that determines who gets in and who’s out, and it’s so well done that I’m still thinking about this film days after seeing it. Through this mother and her daughter, proxies for any of us, she asks us to ponder what about us defines our individual worth and humanity.