‘Advantageous’: Sundance Review

Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival
Jennifer Ehle in 'Advantageous'
Perhaps the perfect film for geeky women’s studies majors, this is bursting with interesting ideas and details but has some significant flaws

Jennifer Phang’s second foray into sci-fi offers a feminist dystopia starring Jacqueline Kim and Jennifer Ehle

Low-budget feminist sci-fi film Advantageous, the second future-set feature from Jennifer Phang (Half Life) has some pacing and tonal problems, especially in its final stretch, but it casts a peculiarly bewitching spell and has ambition to burn. Teaming with ideas, perhaps to the point where there’s literally too much information to grasp, it posits a future a hundred or so years from now where declining fertility, economic crisis and advances in neuroscience conspire to pose some tough choices for a single mother (played with ache and grace by co-writer Jacqueline Kim.) As a festival item, it has a bright future ahead, although in terms of distribution the forecast is more uncertain.

Unfolding in an unspecified date in the future (one character refers to the 21st century in a way that suggests it’s long past), and set in an unnamed American city with a skyscraper and flying-drone skyline straight out of Things to Come (1936), the story revolves around Gwen Koh (Kim), a spokesperson for the Center for Advanced Health and Living, a biotech multinational. Gwen lives alone with her pubescent daughter Jules (Samantha Kim, an impressive discovery), a kind, vivacious honor-student she’s raised single-handedly, the father being mysteriously absent. It looks like Jules might have a chance to attend one of the country’s top-ranked “bonding camps” (the equivalent of high-school, presumably) as long as both she and Gwen pass the right academic and social tests, but the tuition feels are exorbitant.   

There’s lots of shiny new gizmos in everyday use in this brave new world, but while microprocessor design and satellite surveillance have clearly advanced by leaps, socially things are starting to go backwards. With an economic recession on, women are being pressured to stop working and stay home to make room for men in the job market, and everywhere middle-aged women can be seen living rough on the streets. In Gwen and Jules’ apartment, they take turns trying to guess which female neighbor is the one who’s crying, the woman upstairs or the one below.

The script has to ensure all that backstory is clear in order to underscore what’s at stake when Gwen’s ice queen boss Isa Cryer (Jennifer Ehle) informs her that they’re laying her off. They want to hire someone younger for her job in order to promote their latest invention, creepy tech involving pulsing tubes and neurotransmitters that enables consumers to move his or her consciousness into a new body in order to become, pace their corporate slogan, “the you you were meant to be.”

With time running out for Gwen to pay Jules’ tuition fees, and no other job prospects in sight apart from selling her eggs to fertility patients, she offers to undergo the risky procedure herself in order to save her job. But what will that choice mean, especially if not every memory can be guaranteed to make the journey? And what affect will it have on the “animal” bond between a mother and child once their genetic commonality is severed?

For viewers to whom the Bechdel Test matters, Advantageous certainly passes with flying colors. Indeed, it seems perfectly designed to appeal to a very specific niche audience of geek-minded female viewers with an interest in speculative fiction, (like me, in fact). It’s not hard to imagine it becoming cult viewing in places like Berkeley, the director’s city of birth, or any college town or urban area with the right critical density of literature, film and women’s studies majors who sometimes read Wired.

Film and sci-fi buffs will have a field day spotting the references to such disparate works as Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale, Spike Jonze’s Her, Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days, early Atom Egoyan films, Martin Scorsese’s adaptation The Age of Innocence which Phang namechecks in the press notes, and even Douglas Sirk’s classic melodrama of maternal sacrifice, Imitation of Life, all mulched up together and filtered through a sensibility that has its own special, sensual vibe. One of the movie’s most winning qualities is the way it hymns the physical but not erotic intimacy between parents and children, evoked in moments where Gwen and Jules sing a song together at the piano in French, or loll on the sofa, their limbs entwined. Strokeable, scrunchable, tactile textures abound throughout in Dara Wishingrad’s subtle production design and particularly Stacey Jordan’s outstanding costumes, which cleverly use lots of pre-creased, Issey Miyake-like fabrics to suggest the elegant wrinkles Gwen must smooth out to survive.

The detailing right the way through is so impressively intricate, that makes it all the more frustrating that the bigger picture isn’t more tightly conceived. The biggest letdown is the lack of emotional heft in the final half hour, right where the film really needs to go big and Sirkian with its feelings and cut out the clutter. It’s no surprise to learn this was developed from a short film; it has a short’s fragmented, tone-poem quality, but not the sustained coherence of a feature. Phang undoubtedly has a distinctive style that’s entirely her own, and she has properly interesting things to say. Fans of this work can only hope she'll find the resources needed to nurture that raw talent.

Production companies: A Good Neighbors Media in association with D.K. Entertainment, I Ain’t Playin’ Films production
Cast:Jacqueline Kim, James Urbaniak, Freya Adams, Ken Jeong, Jennifer Ehle, Samantha Kim
Director:Jennifer Phang
Screenwriter: Jacqueline Kim, Jennifer Phang, based on a short film by Jennifer Phang
Producers: Robert Chang, Jennifer Phang, Jacqueline Kim, Theresa Navarro, Moon Molson, Ken Jeong
Director of photography: Richard Wong
Production designer: Dara Wishingrad
Costume designer: Stacey Jordan
Editors: Sean Gillane, Jennifer Phang
Composer: Timo Chen
Senior VFX supervisor: Catherine Tate
Conceptual design: Aiyana Trotter
Casting: Liz Ortiz-Mackes
Sales: Robert Chang

No rating, 97 minutes