‘Advantageous’ Review: Jennifer Phang’s Thoughtful Sci-Fi Drama Rocked My Core
In Jennifer Phang’s second journey into feminist sci-fi, ‘Advantageous’ is a feminist dystopia where the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Successful but nevertheless struggling Gwen (actor and co-writer Jacqueline Kim) is seeking to secure a place for her daughter (Samantha Kim) at a prestigious school – a move that would ensure her daughter’s progress in an overpopulated world where water is a scare resource, and unemployment is near-total due to automation and AI. To support her daughter’s future, Gwen is going to have to make a difficult choice – one that could erode her very sense of self, and estrange her from everyone who is dear to her.
In Gwen’s world, water is precious. But so is love. What will any of us do for love?
The near-future presented in Advantageous is only slick on the surface. Only in parts. Yes, there are gleaming skyscrapers and flying discs, but much of the action is centred in the quiet homely spaces – in Gwen’s cramped flat with its rows of empty water bottles and worn furniture firmly centred in the past.
The world Gwen and her daughter seek to thrive in is one where homeless children sleep in bushes. Workers look up whenever they hear ominous explosions in the distance, but say nothing. War? Insurrection? No-one bothers to mention the cause, presumably because it’s such a common occurence, and Phang leaves the viewer to form their own conclusions – much as she does with the entirety of the film.
Gwen’s world will feel like a quietly desperate home from home for fans of The Handmaid’s Tale. Gwen apparently has a high-flying job, and her work colleagues meet for coffee and scheming in grand places that ooze money and futuristic fancies. But this apple is rotten at its core.
Phang’s slow and measured direction aims for show, not tell. There is little to no exposition, but the viewer slowly builds up a picture where, in a world with too many people, racism is systemic and rife. Becoming ‘too old’ to have value is happening at an increasingly young age. AI is so sophisticated that humans aren’t sure if they’re speaking to people or AI service workers any more, and people are struggling to retain any sense of personal value when AI can do so many things better than a person can. In an increasingly competitive world, it’s not enough for a child to display excellence; to hold any lasting social or commercial worth, they must be a genius. Or know the right people.
This is a deeply dystopian world where a policy is forming to make women rather than men unemployed, apparently because unemployed women will be less likely to become violent. Wait. What?
This is not a world anyone wants to live in. Yet, at times, it feels like we already do.
Some viewers may feel ill at ease with the delicate pace of Advantageous. I found the progression in this Sundance award-winning cinematic beauty to be absolutely mesmerising, drawing me into Gwen’s inner world, and her hopes and fears for herself and her daughter. I felt immersed in the quiet desperation of not only Gwen but everyone she meets – each fighting their own battles, each struggling to cope with their stifling reality.
The key moment for Gwen is when she is presented with a horrific choice. Although she is uniquely qualified and proven to be excellent at her job, she will only get to keep it (and strengthen her daughter’s chances in an uncertain future) if she takes on a transformation that will affect her to her very core. She will have to decide whether she is willing to undertake a transformation that – visibly, certainly – makes her no longer herself. Her looks, her race, her age – they’ll be transformed in a single operation to make her more ‘suitable’ for her professional role.
This film is about that choice. It is about women as commodities, and about women feeling coerced by an oppressive system to treat themselves as commodities. This is a film about racism. About women’s place in the world. About age. About struggling to keep your head above water. It is, very importantly, about love. About how love is one of the few and most precious tools we have to try to survive, whatever our actions.
This slow, nuanced, quiet, thoughtful, beautifully acted and directed film shook my bones to powder and left me in a puddle of my melted heart. Advantageous is the film we need. Watch it, and be warned – it won’t always feel like the future. Sometimes it will feel like today.