Jennifer Phang’s first feature since 2008’s “Half-Life” is another thinking person’s sci-fi tale, this one expanding on a short she made in 2012. The tale of a mother making eventually desperate sacrifices to ensure a future for her daughter in an increasingly unaffordable near-future, “Advantageous” presents an offbeat, intimate dystopian vision that is strongly intriguing for a while. But just when it should shift from a focus on ideas to emotional involvement, the pic instead grows slower and less engaging. Theatrical prospects are likely to be modest, ancillary sales stronger for an item that will please serious futurist-lit readers more than action-movie fanboys.
Even more so than “Half-Life,” “Advantageous” (co-written with lead thesp Jacqueline Kim) is notable for having a distinctly feminine p.o.v. and themes in a filmic genre that seldom stretches farther in that direction than placing the occasional female protagonist into essentially masculine narratives. It joins a small club of movies (like “Rain Without Thunder” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” that iddddmagine a time not long from now as technologically evolved but moving backward in social terms for women, who find themselves more commodified and less politically/economically empowered than ever.
Actually, Gwen Koh (Kim) appears to be quite the winner in her unnamed metropolis of an unspecified future date. Though a single mother, she’s able to maintain a comfortable life for herself and her 13-year-old daughter, Jules (Samantha Kim) as a high-profile spokesperson. Her employer is the innocuously-sounding Center for Advanced Health and Living, a corporation that offers murky but alluring paths to extended youthfulness and beauty — next-generation variations on cosmetic surgery–for those who can afford it.
Though considered peerless in her job, however, the inevitable day arrives when still-beautiful but 40-ish Gwen is judged too old to be selling artificial youth. This puts her in a precarious situation, as even a student as brilliant as Jules isn’t guaranteed a place in the exorbitantly expensive prep schools that–sans great family wealth or connections — offer pretty much her only shot at staying on a path to adult success. (Surprisingly, pic shows very little of the presumably immense, desperate lower classes the Kohs have so far managed to stay out of, though we grasp how thin the safety net separating people like them from it is.)
Gwen is semi-estranged from any relatives (including Jennifer Ikeda and Ken Jeong as a cousin and her husband, respectively) she might borrow money from, while her principal executive ally at the Center (James Urbaniak as Fisher) can only advocate so much on her behalf. The job offers her status should invite aren’t forthcomingd — no doubt in large part, we learn, because in the musical-chairs game of ever-shrinking human resources, women are considered less of a public safety hazard if rendered homeless by unemployment. So Gwen decides to become the first “civilian test subject” in the Center’s latest radical Fountain of Youth procedure. It will turn her into a younger, ethnically “more universal type.” But as Fisher warns her, the physical and mental side-effects may be more than she’s bargained for.
The impact of this initially ambiguous transformational process on Mother (now played by Freya Adams) and daughter is profound, endangering the bond that is the most important thing in life for both. But “Advantageous,” which till then has been quite fascinating in its quiet, methodically paced way, at this point slows to an even quieter near-crawl, risking tedium when it requires emotional intensity. A somewhat optimistic fadeout does little to leaven sense that pic’s energy and involvement flatline in its last reel.
That said, there’s still much that’s intelligent, original and intriguing here. While the focus is kept primarily on the individual scale of the shiny, opulent, mostly familiar-looking world protags move in, futuristic elements are very well handled. These range from updated telecommunications (i.e. holograms) to impressive CGI cityscapes with credible leaps forward in architecture and transportation. (These vistas are often jarred by smoke from explosions created by “rebel forces” left teasingly unexplained.)
Additional tech/design contributions are also strong, notably Richard Wong’s elegant photography. More input from Timo Chen’s sparsely deployed score might have helped amp up the drama when needed in pic’s later sections. Performances are uniformly fine, with Jennifer Ehle also intriguing as another corporate executive whose tartly adversarial air the script leaves underexplored.