Forget the sleek skyscrapers, flying cars, or holo-phone tech. What you really need to know about the near future of Jennifer Phang's daring and accomplished science-fiction drama Advantageous comes from what a mother and daughter overhear in their cramped, stubbornly un-futuristic apartment. Somewhere, there's a woman crying, and the daughter places her head to the floor, listening. The mother asks, “Upstairs or downstairs?”
“Both,” the daughter says.
So it goes for the un-wealthy—and aging—women in Phang's future. (The script is by Jacqueline Kim, who plays the lead, and Phang herself.) That mom, Gwen Koh (Kim), is an underpaid public face for the Center for Advanced Health and Living, one of those big companies with an aggressively nonthreatening name that so much sci-fi plotting depends upon. She's had the gig long enough that the company's noticed that that face of hers isn't exactly as it used to be, so they're looking for a younger model. Meanwhile, Gwen's adolescent daughter, Jules (Samantha Kim), is at the age to be sent to a pricey private school. That money is due soon, and Gwen can't afford this if she loses her job, which would mean Jules faces a life without “advantage.” We know that's a terrible thing because of the film's many examples of economic deprivation: those weeping neighbors, a homeless girl sleeping in the shrubbery outside an office, news reports about teen prostitution.
And Gwen herself, of course. The first half of the film is an inventive, intense study of aging and class struggle in a youthocracy only just a bit more pitiless than ours today. Gwen hustles for job interviews, considers selling her eggs, and, checking the balances in her accounts, has to bark at a robo-banking voice that most desperate of instructions: “Cancel automatic payment.”
“I can't let her become one of these women so desperate that they would do anything,” Gwen says of her daughter. But, this being an sci-fi story with a Center for Advanced What-Have-You, Gwen has one terrifying option open to her after exhausting all others. Will she submit to the Center's newest, most daring de-aging procedure—allowing her, if all goes well, to once again be the face the Center desires?
Of course she does. The film's third act centers on an upsetting surprise, a trick of casting certain to shake the audience, a twist that demands we consider just how much beauty-minded societies demand of women.
Structurally, this guarantees that the film fails to satisfy according to the terms of conventional movie storytelling. Challenging viewers this way—denying clean resolutions, chucking out the urgent drama of the first hour of movie—is bound to alienate some audiences. But from its arresting first scenes, Phang's film is as much about why? as it is what next? Before the big switch, Jules, sensing the pressure her mother is under, straight-up asks why she, the daughter, even exists. It's a tremendous relief that Gwen's answer comes so quickly, and is so persuasive. Later, in that slower, more ruminative ending, her words echo—and prove all the more powerful.