J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Sundance ’15: Advantageous

Technology can make a dystopia look like a utopia. As the spokesperson for a major cosmetic engineering firm, it is Gwen Koh’s job to convince consumers to buy into this brave new world, but she is not getting any younger. This fact of life has serious economic and social repercussions in Jennifer Phang’s Advantageous, which screens during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

In the near future, Koh has already beat the odds finding high profile employment as a single mother. Inconveniently, her luck is about to run out at the worst possible time. Her thirteen year old daughter Jules has been turned down by her preferred prep school, but she was accepted by her nearly as prestigious but twice as expensive second choice. She should also attend a pricey summer camp for incoming students or risk losing ground before classes even start. However, Koh’s employers have just declined to renew her contract, opting to replace her with someone younger.

Koh will try reaching out to estranged family members, but her best hope might entail returning to her former employers as the guinea pig-public face for their newest, most radical procedure. Unfortunately, the process might not be exactly what they report it to be. Koh is clearly willing to sacrifice for her daughter, but it might cost her far more than will be immediately apparent.

Expanding her ITVS Futurestates short to feature length, Phang and lead actress-co-writer Jacqueline Kim create a compellingly personal vision of a futuristic dystopia. Frankly, some of their contentions fly in the face of recent trends, such as disproportionately high unemployment for women, when middle age men have been hit the hardest in recent years. Nevertheless, they evoke a compelling sense of economic vulnerability.

Regardless, Advantageous is truly relationship-driven science fiction, especially Koh’s overriding love for her daughter. As Gwen and Jules Koh, Jacqueline and Samantha Kim will pretty much break your heart as their drama plays out. Frankly, once circumstances remove the former Kim from the picture, Advantageous loses some of its bite. Indeed, the third act largely feels like an overlong epilogue, except for a key scene with James Urbaniak (Simon Grim in Hal Hartley’s Henry Fool and its sequel). While he initially comes across like just another corporate suit, his relationship with Gwen Koh evolves in an intriguing way, further deepening the film.

Although Advantageous scrupulously maintains its micro focus, it still presents an impressive looking vision of the future. It is a lot like our world, but one or two steps closer to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Its anti-corporate, feminist biases can get a little clunky, but the performances of Kim, Kim, and Urbaniak (helmed with remarkable sensitivity by Phang) more than compensate. Recommended for those who appreciate science fiction with psychological complexity, Advantageous screens again this morning (1/28), tomorrow (1/29), and Friday (1/30) in Park City, as well as this Saturday (1/31) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

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