The science-fiction film Advantageous takes place in an unspecified but not distant-looking future, rendered in washed-out digital video—an Upstream Color palette with splashes of low-budget but well-deployed visual effects. Those effects primarily function as an extension of the film’s setting and set design, adding in distant explosions and drone-like flying machines that Gwen (Jacqueline Kim), the film’s lead character, never encounters directly. As in a lot of good sci-fi, the movie is set in a particular world, but driven by the characters that inhabit it.
Gwen, a single mother, works for the Center For Advanced Health And Living, a company with the kind of doublespeak name that would make both its employees and its customers very nervous if they realized they were in a sci-fi film. Director Jennifer Phang, who co-wrote Advantageous with Kim, focuses her future on a quietly desperate race to the top, or at least to the top of the middle. Almost everyone in the movie wants to carve out their own space from whatever dwindling elite real estate remains, be it a prestigious job selling the public on the Center’s mysterious procedures or a spot at one of the few private schools acceptable (and expensive) enough to put Gwen’s 13-year-old daughter Jules (Samantha Kim, no relation to her on-screen mother) on the right life path. The characters all maintain the chilly, robotic speech patterns of ritualized achievement; even young Jules talks about feeling “pressure to be hyper-productive,” while Gwen counsels her by admitting that “there was a time when I was also confused about why I was alive.”
This intentionally stilted affect can turn a little narcotizing, especially during the movie’s protracted midsection, when Gwen agonizes over difficult decisions after losing her job at the Center. She searches for a new one via an unseen network that sounds, based on its aggressive vocal prompts, like a LinkedIn gone mad with power. Phang makes smart use of a presumably low budget by introducing tech so integrated into life that it doesn’t need to look ostentatiously futuristic. Advantageous, while too wan-looking to qualify as beautiful, has an otherworldly aura floating over its many recognizable sights.
Harder sci-fi eventually turns up when Gwen is forced to consider a drastic procedure to give her a much-needed edge in her fuzzily defined work—and one that will alter her relationship with Jules. The mother-daughter relationship is central to the movie, to the point where some scenes addressing familial melodrama (involving a nicely restrained Ken Jeong) feel diminished simply because they can’t include the empathetic younger actress. In general, Advantageous underpopulates its vision—the unanswered question of where the unproductive, non-elite people have gone feels more logistical than philosophical. But the film feels less small when it comes to the ways Phang challenges the sci-fi (and indie-movie) status quo: using a predominantly Asian-American cast to tell a story about vanishing underclasses and the attempt to turn the promise of youthful exceptionalism into a dodgy renewable resource. That second part is vital to the movie’s low-key effectiveness. When Gwen calls herself a “very satisfied test subject,” it’s chilling as both a piece of speculative fiction and in its eerie plausibility.