Advantageous (USA, 2015)
I want my dystopias to bring me discomfort. I do not want my dystopias to reassure me. I want them to confront me. I want them to wig me out. Jennifer Phang’s debut feature Advantageous wigs me out. As a result, as oxymoronish as this sounds, it is a successful dystopia.
Advantageous focuses on Gwen (Jacqueline Kim) who is about to lose her job as a spokesperson for a health company. The job is one of her only means of supporting her daughter Jules (Samantha Kim) because this dystopia sits in a world of our future making where jobs are scarce. As a result, Gwen is vulnerable to making a frightening choice in order to maintain the job that enables her to provide for her daughter.
Every director and screenwriter who puts their vision out into the world has to be open to audiences seeing things they may not have intended. For example, in a recent interview for The L Magazine, the interviewer discusses how Gwen is being replaced as a spokesperson for a ‘universal look’ and the interviewer assumed this was a euphemism for ‘white’. Phang herself didn’t see that. She didn’t intend that. She saw ‘universal look’ as a euphemism for multiracial, which the casting for the future spokesperson underscores. This mistaken assumption is not to discredit the interview. It’s an excellent interview. I bring this up because I am about to tell you the themes that resonated for me in the film. They might not be Phang’s intent, they might not resonate with you, but I love that Phang’s (and Kim’s, since they co-wrote the screenpaly) world made me think about these things.
The character Gwen is a member of a growing precariat class. ‘Precariat’ is a portmanteau of ‘precarious’ and ‘proletariat’. The precariat are a social class where ones existence is unpredictable and insecure due to the lack of jobs that provide regular work with above-poverty wages or salaries. The precariat class has always been with us. It’s just that the precariat class is expanding to encompass previously privileged or at least comfortable classes. (Anne Allison’s Precarious Japan from 2014 is a wonderful introduction to this concept and how Japan is particularly vulnerable to a growing precariat membership.) The precariat class is slowly expanding in countries like the US where fixed costs (hoursing, health, education) rise while wages remain stagnant. Such is the end result of a hyper, misguided focus on keeping labor costs low in order to keep upper management salaries and perks exorbitantly high. The insecurity of the growing precariat class seeps through Advantageous, advancing the diseased decision Gwen is encouraged to make.
Another theme resonating in Advantageous for me is the concept of ‘velvet eugenics’, a term developed by disability studies scholar Rosemarie Garland-Thomson. To elaborate on this concept would be to touch tenderly close to spoilers, so I won’t go into it for now, perhaps saving it for a later essay once the film moves to DVD. But after you watch the film, listen to her lecture recorded for the “Big Ideas” program on the Australia Broadcasting Corporation and you’ll get an idea of how I saw Garland-Thomson’s scholarship advanced by the world envisioned in Advantageous.
One resonating theme of the film that Phang herself has acknowledged is the feminist focus. Gwen’s vulneability to fall into the precariat class is partly due to gender discrimination, manifesting in in the future world of Advantageous with the ‘neo-traditionalist’ movement that advocates for employing men over women. This is a sci-fi film about women, about a mother and her daughter: there is none of the kicking ass that many male directors and writers or funders and fans require for a woman to take centre stage in a film of this genre. This is a cerebral film where emotions are taken seriously. Along with the feminist focus, Advantageous represents aspects of our diverse now that will be even more a part of our future. Phang and Kim have partiallly filled a cavernous hole in the sci-fi genre. For those of us who have been over super-heroed and apocolapsed, over testosteroned, Advantageous is an antidote to all genre toxins.
Advantageous will be released in San Francisco and New York City on Friday June 26, and will also be available from Netflix on the same day.