United States. Directed by Jennifer Phang, 2015. Starring Jacqueline Kim, Samantha Kim, James Urbaniak, Jennifer Ehle, Ken Jeong. 90 minutes.
Co-screenwriters Jennifer Phang (who also directs) and Jacqueline Kim (who also stars) examine a broad range of issues in Advantageous, their dystopian near-future science-fiction drama. Kim stars as Gwen Koh, a single mother who loses her job as “head” of the Center for Advanced Health and Living. I put the word “head” in ironi-quotes because even though that seems to have been Gwen’s official title, and she seems to have the scientific knowledge to back such a title up, in terms of her actual duties she seems more like a glorified spokesperson. And since her superiors (represented by James Urbaniak and Jennifer Ehle) have decided that since they want to pursue a younger demographic, the middle-aged Gwen has to go.
This is an especially bad time for Gwen to be out of a job, as her thirteen-year-old daughter Jules (Samantha Kim) stands at a crucial juncture in her school career. If Gwen can’t cough up the exorbitant tuition fees for a prestigious private school (private schools seem to have been abolished), Jules’s promising future goes down the tubes. But since unemployment currently stands at 45%, Gwen’s chances of finding a job that pays her what she needs to make are grim.
That’s just a modest slice of the social commentary Advantageous offers: it also examines terrorism, surveillance, the media, and economic privilege–and that’s all before we meet her estranged cousin and her husband (Jennifer Ikeda and Ken Jeong), not to mention the plot’s real turning point, where we learn the true nature of the Center for Advanced Health and Living’s flagship product. On paper, the film looks well-meaning but stuffed to overflowing with ideas, threatening to burst at any moment.
It doesn’t, although by the end I did see a few dangling threads, leaving me to wonder exactly what they had to do with anything else and why they were there. They serve the world-building well, and one certainly can’t define the limits of the real world within ninety minutes. But I have to admit I would have liked slightly tighter plotting.
However, the script keeps everything under control by putting the focus squarely on Gwen and her relationships. The film’s economic reality isn’t too far removed from our own, and the Koh’s comparative affluence doesn’t detract from Gwen’s relatability. Similarly, while it would be easy to define the supporting characters in only one or two dimensions–Jules’s friends could be snooty Stepford Children; the Center’s leadership, bottom-line-obsessed Randian sociopaths–Phang and Kim wisely develop them as real(ish) people. Jennifer Ehle’s character, for example, might be the closest thing Advantageous has to an actual antagonist, but one gets the sense that she genuinely sympathizes with Gwen’s plight.
A film this focused on character needs a cast that can keep up with it, and the ensemble here is excellent, with Jacqueline Kim providing a solid emotional anchor, and impressive supporting performances, especially from Urbaniak and Samantha Kim. Jeong proves to be the film’s MVP, delivering a performance wholly removed from the bombast that defines his signature role (Community’s Señor Chang).
Advantageous might be a bit too ambitious for its means, but that doesn’t keep it from being an excellent science-fiction drama. Highly recommended for those who prefer their SF thoughtful and cerebral.