At the Center for Advanced Health and Living, Ehle and Urbaniak seek a solution to their spokesmodel problem.
This week in movies you missed: Visit a dark near-future where a single mom is so desperate to provide for her daughter that she agrees to the ultimate devil's bargain.
This indie film from Jennifer Phang (Half-Life) is an arty variation on the plot of John Frankenheimer's Seconds — which already received a more pedestrian homage this summer in the form of the Ryan Reynolds flop Self/less. Is this one any better?
Jacqueline Kim as Gwen.
What You Missed
It's 2041. In an unnamed city digitally enhanced with bizarre, organic-looking skyscrapers and flying transports, Gwen Koh (Jacqueline Kim, who also cowrote with Phang) lives a seemingly charmed life. She's the official head of the Center for Advanced Health and Living, a corporation that offers high-tech solutions — surgical and otherwise — to an aging population looking to stay in the work force. She dresses expensively and shares a spacious apartment with her bright 13-year-old daughter, Jules (Samantha Kim), who's applying to prestigious prep schools.
But Gwen is really just a figurehead at the Center — an actress playing its empathetic public face. And now that she's starting to look tired and middle-aged, her bosses (James Urbaniak and Jennifer Ehle) have no use for her.
Now Gwen is unemployed in a straitened and stratified world where women are being nudged back out of the work force, where infertility is rampant (the one job she's offered is selling her eggs), and where young girls resort to prostitution for survival. The only way to ensure her daughter's future in the elite professional class, she's told, is to pony up a hefty deposit for prep school tuition.
The folks at the Center have a solution for Gwen — a way to reclaim her former job. It's not without risks, though, because if she wants a new generation of consumers to trust her, she's going to need to look like one of them.
Why You Missed It Advantageous received a Special Jury Prize for Collaborative Vision at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. It had a small theatrical release earlier this summer and is now on Netflix and Amazon Instant.
Should You Keep Missing It?
I really wanted to like Advantageous. Writing the synopsis above, I found myself wanting to like it all over again, because there's such rich potential here for a timely science fiction parable from a female perspective — a middle-aged, non-white female perspective. How often do we see that?
Phang seems to be going for an early David Cronenberg vibe — which, again, is far from a bad thing. But the film's elements just never click into place. Let's examine why using my 20-point, highly scientific scale for the evaluation of indie films:
Jennifer Ehle as Isa Cryer.
1-4 points: Does it look pretty?
4/4. I already mentioned this is an arty movie; Phang dwells on carefully composed images, often to the detriment of plot and pacing.
But those images do enhance her setting. She contrasts the cold, high-tech blues of the Center and the city (such a classic Cronenberg environment that I was surprised to learn the film wasn't Canadian) with the warmth of late sunlight in a park, or with strangely touching shots of a young homeless woman bedded down in a planter. (Nameless, unspeaking girls and young women crop up throughout the film, presumably embodying Gwen's fears and hopes for Jules' future.)
One CG "aerial" shot of the Center HQ — which starts upside down, then rotates — disoriented and impressed me in a way that CG almost never does anymore. These effects are cheap, obviously. But their juxtaposition with more traditional art-film visual subjects — like a repeated shot of schoolgirls running — creates a believable, lived-in futuristic setting.
1-4 points: Does anything happen?
2/4. Eventually, yes. But the film's biggest problem is Phang's failure to build tension as we move toward those dramatic developments.
Most filmmakers would start right off with the protagonist making a devil's bargain and then explore the consequences. Phang does the opposite: Roughly two thirds of the film are devoted to Gwen's very gradual realization that she has no good options. When we finally see the consequences of her choosing a bad one, they feel like an afterthought — adorned with a few rather cheap pieces of dramatic irony.
1-4 points: Does what happens make sense?
2/4. Much of it does, but there's one key piece that just doesn't work — namely, the role of the Center in nudging Gwen toward her choice. While we receive hints that her former bosses are manipulating her, they seem so lackadaisical about it that they don't come off as particularly sinister.
And that compounds the pacing problem described above. Without a clear antagonist, and with the protagonist's goals only slowly taking shape, many of the film's early scenes feel lackadaisical, too.
1-4 points: Do the characters seem like real people? Failing that, do they look pretty? 2/4. Pretty, sure. Real, too rarely. Advantageous inspired me to propose a rule for ambitious indie science fiction flicks — let's call it the Cronenberg Principle:
If you seek a broad audience for your high-concept SF film, it can have
Tongue-twisting, stilted, high-concept dialogue that no real person would ever utter in real life, resulting in all your actors seeming a bit like androids; OR
Glacial, moody pacing throughout and an avoidance of traditional genre-flick mechanics such as "rising action."
But it cannot have both.
Cronenberg's early films had (1), but he used B-movie plots and gory body horror to keep our attention. This year's Ex Machina — a sleeper hit that played outside art houses — had (2). It was essentially a static chamber drama, yet believable dialogue and all-too-human characters (see my review) kept us from getting bored.
Advantageous hits both points. And that's why it ultimately doesn't work.
I get that the ornate, stilted dialogue (spoken even by Jules and her peers) reflects the artificiality of an achievement-obsessed elite that rarely interacts with the physical world in an immediate way. At one point, Gwen even mistakes the software she's speaking with on the phone for a human being, hinting at the nearness of the Singularity.
But. Even in a world like this, I firmly believe, people will still speak in sentence fragments and use contractions — at least in informal settings, such as a mom-and-daughter convo. Hell, even the androids will be programmed to use contractions so they sound like real people. These characters don't merely sound stilted or constrained; they sound like they're reading from a high-concept SF script.
1-4 points: Does the movie give us a reason to care about anything happening on screen?
2/4. There are so many good, provocative ideas here that I wanted to care. But, for the reasons detailed above, I couldn't. The film starts distant and continues that way — never really forcing us into the immediacy of sharing Gwen's predicament. Chilling as the final scenes were (and there is a good twist here), I never quite recovered from the dreamy stupor the earlier ones had induced.
Verdict: 12/20. I can't recommend Advantageous to anyone who doesn't tolerate the aforementioned glacial art-film pacing. But if you loved Ex Machina and enjoy heady SF generally, it's worth a look. And, despite my disappointment, I'll watch whatever Phang does next.
New on Netflix in August: Look for Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night and Kristen Wiig in the absurdist comedy Welcome to Me. Also, season 1 of "Utopia," which I dearly hope is the British SF series and not the FOX reality show. Finally, if Trainwreck gave you an appetite for raunchy female buddy comedy, check out the underrated and under-seen For a Good Time, Call...