There’s a sequence in Jennifer Phang’s remarkable science fiction film Advantageous that takes place in a pristine-looking kitchen. It’s like an image straight out of a contemporary lifestyle magazine, complete with marble counter-top and cookware hanging neatly on the wall. The major difference is that here, the people using the kitchen are worried about their dwindling water rations. Much of Advantageous is built on similarly small social paradoxes, not the least of which is that the characters inhabit a spit-shined dystopia almost entirely composed of reflective surfaces and near-future CCTV gizmos while everyone struggles to feel like a fully-realized human being. It’s a universe populated by people having difficulty achieving self-actualization due to the interference of any number of outside forces, and through sheer dint of having a great cast and a deep well of ideas, Advantageous gives these characters no shortage of reasons to struggle with what personhood means.
Advantageous stars Jacqueline Kim (who also co-produced and co-wrote the film) as Gwen, a spokesperson for a bioengineering firm that specializes in non-invasive cosmetic surgery. Despite her expertise and position, she struggles to make ends meet and provide for her daughter, Jules (Samantha Kim). Thanks to the looming specter of unemployment (it’s implied that the only available source of income readily available to Gwen is becoming an egg donor) and the all-consuming desire to give her daughter every opportunity she can get regardless of the cost, Gwen undergoes an experimental beta-stage procedure offered by her employers that would effectively transfer her consciousness into a “more marketable” body. The movie flies highest when it explores the coded language inside those scare quotes. While the film is the latest in a long line of soft sci-fi movies that turn a mirror onto contemporary social ills, few are as casually layered and incisive as this one.
Though it draws on everything from Seconds to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to Upstream Color, the film’s closest genetic relative is Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca. But where that film was mostly an exercise in caste-smashing humanism, Advantageous seamlessly folds in the added elements of race, gender, age, and family into its tale of personal and professional sacrifice. If the film were just a near-future drama about the difficulties of staying ahead of the curve as a single mother of East Asian descent, it would be worth talking about. What puts it over the edge is twofold; Phang the director uses an airy, vaguely-dreamlike style that grounds the film while still giving it the flair of the hyperreal, while Phang the writer marries the drama to twisty, heady sci-fi concepts like the transmutation of bodies and its consequences on consciousness and identity. In a way, it plays like the warmer, more labyrinthine b-side to Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion, another movie that explored the relationship between bodies, consciousness, and interpersonal relationships. Only in Advantageous, the relationships are more splintered and multi-faceted from the get go. This isn’t Tom Cruise remembering a lover, it’s a woman trying to navigate a world that slowly but surely turns its back on her.
The whole film’s structure and vibe would completely collapse under its own weight if it were not for the performances. Jacqueline Kim anchors the film with a poised, understated performance, her every expression conveying the weight of every small battle she has to fight. Samantha Kim (no relation) is superb as Jules, precocious without being precious, and one of the best performances by a young actor I’ve seen all year. The supporting players, including a perpetually concerned-looking James Urbaniak and a moody, nuanced Ken Jeong, all put in great work. This isn’t the kind of film that runs on showy performances, but on intelligence, warmth, and world-building; very little is outright said, but much is suggested.
A film like Advantageous, a sharp piece of low-key genre cinema created primarily by non-white women, shouldn’t feel like feel like the exception to a greater rule. But as it is, it lends the film tremendous political heft and lends it an urgency it might not have otherwise had if it were directed by, say, a white guy. In terms of financing and distribution, it’s a Kickstarter success story, a feather in netflix’s cap, and a sign that the world isn’t ready to give up on the modestly-budgeted, idea-based science fiction film.
Advantageous is currently streaming on Netflix.
Directed by Jennifer Phang; written by Jacqueline Kim and Jennifer Phang; starring Jacqueline Kim, James Urbaniak, Jennifer Ehle, Ken Jeong, Freya Adams, and Samantha Kim; 90 minutes.