Every so often a film comes out of nowhere, nearly invisible to the mainstream cinema crowd, and it simply blows me away. Independent cinema isn’t always great, despite what some would like you to believe, and there are just as many blunders as there are successes, but Jennifer Phang’s Advantageous isn’t only an excellent addition to the indie field, it’s also one of the best science-fiction films of this past year and further proof that female directors know how to deliver on genre films.
Set in a future society where the distance between the wealthy and the poor has grown and the wealthy are super-humanly elite, the film takes this on the verge of dystopia and centers its story on a mother/daughter relationship. Gwen (Jacqueline Kim) and her daughter Jules (Samantha Kim) try to hold on to their sense of joy as the egregious opulence of their world threatens to shake their foundation and change their lives forever.
Directed by Phang, the film doesn’t take its science fiction nature lightly, while also introducing it into the story without needing to be overly verbose about it. It’s simply integrated into the film’s universe. The futuristic side aspect of the film is especially unsettling considering how much of it appears plausible, much of it having to do with the ways in which we communicate with others. Our phones are getting smaller, the media capacity larger: why wouldn’t we imagine we’d get to a point where phones are seemingly nonexistent? This is a futuristic world where things such as Christmas celebrations, playing old fashioned pianos, and take out restaurants still exist. There are no flying cars, no androids, nothing that would appear immediately off. Instead, it’s the casual manner in which society has welcomed the omnipresent threat of wealth, the way that beauty and age standards continue to probe at one another, the fact that men are allowed to continue working while women staying at home because the government fears angry, desperate men being let out on the streets. These aren’t new ideas, but they’re radicalized in Advantageous and made dangerous and world-altering.
This is juxtaposed beautifully with a soft focus directorial style, where the images blur and the exterior settings seem to be scorched by the sun. The interiors, on the other hand are doused in gray. Phang has a remarkable eye for contrasting images and knows how to utilize the seemingly every day moments to highlight the more futuristic setting.
The film has a lot to say about gender politics, the upper elite clas,s and the truth about happiness, and while there’s a fumble here and there in terms of subtlety, it still largely delivers beautifully on these themes. Much of the heavy emotional lifting is left to the actresses playing Gwen and Jules, and the bond feels real. Jacqueline Kim makes the audience feel the pain she’s experiencing and the idea of loss, never knowing truly what will happen to her after the experiment. In order to certify that her daughter is placed into a well-to-do school, where her future will be on sturdy foundation, she must get back a job she has recently lost. However, she is no longer the young, fresh face of the company, something that is aggressively working against her. So she gambles and offers herself up to a new program where her likelihood, her mind, it can be transplanted into a new, younger body.
Or so that’s how it would seem.
Streaming on Netflix and having premiered at Sundance, the film is an emotional wallop, something I didn’t foresee before starting the film; it’s one that has stayed with me, lingering in the back of mind for over a week now. It was a film I came across accidentally, and it’s one I recommend enthusiastically. In a year where superheroes and action-packed thrillers dominate the screens, for better and worse, it’s worth it to settle down and watch a contemplative, atmospheric science fiction film about the bonds of motherhood and family. It’s an eerie film, and the image of Gwen hooked up to the machine that essentially sucks the life out of her is one that I haven’t been able to shake. It’s a confident film by Phang, and with what appears to have been a shoestring budget, I can’t wait to see what she could do with a larger backing.
Advantageous is screening on Netflix now.