The most terrifying science fiction is not the stuff of nightmares, but of reality: dystopian worlds that actually loom ahead. Set in a near-distant future where automation squeezes humans — especially women — out of jobs, the factors that lead up into the world in “Advantageous” have already been laid out today. It’s just a matter of following the threads into years ahead, and watching order unravel into quotidian chaos.
Facing increasing pressure to look younger and more racially ambiguous, Gwen loses her job (Jacqueline Kim, “Red Doors”) as the figurehead of a plastic surgery company (ironically named the Center for Advanced Health and Living). The timing couldn’t be worse. She struggles to pony up tuition for her daughter, Jules’s (Samantha Kim, “Futurestates”) expensive prep school, her only shot at staying in the rapidly disappearing middle class. To get her job back, Gwen agrees to undergo an invasive full-body transplant at a major sacrifice to herself. The film follows how the decision impacts Gwen and Jules’s close relationship.
The world of the future is assembled quietly. Director Jennifer Phang (“Half Life”) economizes her shoestring budget, using minimal CGI for a realistic blend of present day and high-tech urban skylines. Overly precocious children and stiff dialogue reveals an evolved communication form that prioritizes facts, speed and logic. Throwaway dialogue hints at an AI economic takeover, as well as possible terrorist uprisings and rising child prostitution due to soaring unemployment rates – all events that could reasonably occur in the near future. Still, nothing is ever explained outright; the viewer draws the connections themselves. The expository narrative is revealed seamlessly, leaving the dialogue nimble and the focus on Gwen and Jules’s relationship.
With glacial lighting and elegant cinematography, the pacing is deliberately restrained so that the nuances in the relationship between Gwen and Jules can flourish. Gwen faces a catch-22 where she must sacrifice herself to give her daughter a leg up in the capitalist rat race, but to do so would rob Jules of an intimate relationship with her mother. The film questions what it truly means to be “advantageous” in a changing world. The only pitfall is that for all its careful buildup, in the last half-hour, the film feels anxious to race to its finish line.
Directed by an Asian-American woman and featuring a diverse cast, “Advantageous” also marks a successful leap in media representation. It questions the pressures that society places on women, features middle-aged characters actually played by middle-aged actors, and gives Asian actors non-stereotypical, multi-faceted roles. The story “Advantageous” tells is ultimately its own, not one where identity is used as a plot point.
Like any science fiction film, “Advantageous” occasionally questions the humans-versus-technology distinction. But above all, it’s first and foremost a story of mothers, daughters and providing for those you love. Situated among technologies that can perform faster, and more efficiently, characters ask themselves, “why am I alive?” and overwhelmingly, Gwen’s fierce love for her daughter is the answer, grounding the reason for life in emotional connection.
Advantageous is streaming on Netflix.