Advantageous is a bold, intimate piece of science fiction. Like all great sci-fi, it asks hard "what if" questions, but instead of turning away from the more personal, uncomfortable implications of fantasy technology, it zooms in.
Co-written by and starring Jacqueline Kim (based on director and co-writer Jennifer Phang's 2013 short), Advantageous focuses on Gwen Koh, a woman living in a near-future dystopia where the unemployment rate has hit 45% and sexism has taken a nasty turn. She's a reasonably successful businesswoman, the face of a hyper-advanced medical center until, naturally, she becomes too old for the role, and the board prefers, none too subtly, a whiter, younger face.
Her daughter, Jules (Samantha Kim), is a brilliant 13-year-old. But there are no inexpensive schools in this world, and, jobless, Gwen has very few options for getting her child in. Hovering outside the elite status of the very few "haves" in this society, she's invited to enroll Jules in a super exclusive program for a well-to-do school. For a massive price, of course.
Her only option to give Jules a chance in life is to undergo a radical procedure that will make her young, white and desirable, and possibly employable again at her former job.
The plot suggests a standard "body swap" sci-fi storyline, but Advantageous is much more about motherhood, the sacrifices women make for their children, and to a large extent, the difficulties of being a non-white woman in an increasingly intolerant society. Phang and Kim have made this movie specifically about an Asian-American mother facing the world on her own, with all of the connotations that come along with that. The fiercely personal approach frankly makes Advantageous one of the most intimate, emotionally honest science fiction works I've ever seen.
As this is very much the story of a struggling mother and an intimate mother-daughter relationship, Advantageous relies heavily on both Kims' performances. Both women are up for the job — there's a beautiful, vulnerable relationship here, and obvious love between the two. Jules is incredibly smart, but she's also thoughtful and kind — much more so than most movie 13-year-olds. When her mother is ill, she cares for her. When she crafts a Christmas present for her mom, it's a gorgeous work of art. She loves her mother more than anything else in the world, and the hurt she feels when things go inevitable sideways is breathtaking. There were moments in this film that broke my heart — both for Gwen and for Jules.
Kim puts in a powerful performance as the tortured Gwen, who has nothing but love and hope for her daughter. Her pain is so real, her performance so fearless, that I felt for her immediately and throughout the film. That Kim also co-wrote the film makes it even more impressive.
Gwen's "choice" of whether to swap into the younger, whiter body is, in itself, powerful commentary. It's a symbol of the things women have to do to get by in a male-dominated society, made literal by the power of sci-fi and made even more poignant by the racial implications.
It's refreshing to see a classic sci-fi story done from such a different perspective. Gwen isn't trying to be beautiful out of vanity or pride, she only cares about her daughter's future, and that's something that everyone can understand. But there's a certain power in making this feel specific to one person's experience — Gwen feels like a real person, with a history and pathos. It's so rare that we see movies — and even rarer to see sci-fi movies — that tackle issues specific to Asian American women, and here it's handled with great care.
It's refreshing to see a classic sci-fi story done from such a different perspective
Advantageous isn't going to win any awards for visual effects (this is a modestly budgeted film), but the writing, directing and performances are so strong that they elevate the film far beyond a simple twist on a classic trope. Advantageous is a potent, heartbreaking meditation on parental love and the sacrifices women make for their families. It has a lot to say, and it does so with clear-eyed, fearless intensity.
Advantageous is currently in limited release and available to stream on Netflix.