The new indie sci-fi drama “Advantageous” tells the story of single mom Gwen Koh (Jacqueline Kim, who also co-wrote the feature) and her daughter Jules (Samantha Kim, no relation) trying to get by in a world that’s very much like ours. The movie is set in the near future, in a gleaming landscape of silvery skyscrapers and whirring hovercraft. The conflict that drives the film is hardly futuristic, though: Jules is admitted to a pricey prep school just as Gwen loses her job as the spokeswoman for the sinister-sounding Center for Advanced Health and Living.
The drama asks: What is she willing to do to “position” her daughter’s future? What happens when the difference between child-rearing and job training collapses?
The pair live in tumultuous times: A rebel group conducts daily bomb attacks, drinking water is expensive, young women are becoming infertile en masse, older women are pushed out of the labor market, children sleep in flowerbeds and do sex work in the park. But unlike heavier-handed political sci-fi films such as “Snowpiercer” or “The Hunger Games,” social conflict stays in the background. We see the politics through a successful but precarious mother’s eyes as she shields her child from whatever she can.
Because for Gwen, every social illness is a threat to her daughter’s future happiness, security and independence. Without her job, and with no financial safety net, Gwen knows she can’t provide Jules with the advantages she needs. So when the Center puts a flag on Gwen’s digital resume, she goes to her boss and offers to be the test subject for a dangerous new brain transplant procedure in order to stay employed.
In the wake of the Rachel Dolezal affair, commentators will no doubt glom onto Gwen’s transformation from a middle-aged east-Asian woman to a younger, ethnically ambiguous woman (Freya Adams) through a sketchy brain switch. However, the heart of “Advantageous” comes earlier in the series, by way of Jacqueline Kim’s amazing performance. As a single mom with no other source of support, Gwen is struggling to engage in what social scientists call “concerned cultivation” — parenting geared toward providing the child with every future advantage. What will happen to Jules if Gwen can’t afford the right prep school or summer camp isn’t exactly spelled out, but the drop out of the ruling class seems even steeper than it is now. No one talks about public school; it’s unclear if there is a government or welfare state at all.
The film succeeds as a social critique and a work of art because its audience never gets a clear look at the social conditions in which it takes place. For all we know, “Advantageous” could be set in a Hunger Games-like dystopia, with life inside the capital sealed off from beleaguered laboring districts, or in New York City five years from now. It doesn’t matter: For those in the top ranks of any of these societies, with more money than they can spend and more power than they can exercise, things will probably look pretty much the way they do now. The important thing going forward is to keep the money and the power. Gwen, unfortunately, has aged out.
Having had a good job doesn’t set Gwen up to live in prosperity, let alone pass it on to her daughter. Jules, for her part, is smart, talented and hard working. She plays logic games with her friends and gets exceptional grades and sings in French and thinks about her future a lot. Still, none of these qualities are enough to spare her from a lifetime of insecurity. With no social or familial safety net, the burden of ensuring Jules’s future falls on Gwen alone. She’s not only responsible for raising her daughter to be interested and virtuous — she also has to finance a series of arbitrary educational credentials.
Gwen is stuck with an impossible but familiar choice: Sacrifice everything, or leave her child’s future to chance — with the odds stacked against her. Investing in your child is not just a matter of care and attention — it can cost millions (and in America, it sometimes already does.) Maternal love is supposed to be infinite, and Gwen lives her life totally for her daughter — but even then, Jules isn’t sure where she fits in.
“I don’t understand why I exist,” Jules tells her mother, both before and after the transformation. Jules wants to know: Why did you give birth to me in a hostile world without a support structure? What’s the point of all my work if I’m probably screwed anyway?
In these conditions, “because I love you” isn’t a good excuse.
In the press notes for “Advantageous”, director/co-writer Jennifer Phang points out that “despite Gwen’s wisdom and self-awareness, she readily accommodates the value system of her society.” When society directs supposedly limitless parental love into raising individual workers, it pits them against each other. For some children and mothers to win, others must lose.
And as the middle class shrinks, competition heats up. Better-trained kids means more productive workers, which means companies have more choices, which means they can pick their spokeswoman’s new body out of a catalog of pretty faces. It’s a cycle that reinforces itself, powered by an inexhaustible battery of parental affection.
At the individual level, advantages Gwen seeks for her daughter (music lessons, summer camp, prep school) are just that. But a rising tide of affectionate labor — love, that is, directed at one’s own children alone — does not lift all boats. American society, like Gwen’s, has found a way to rely on parents to make the investments that once fall on employers.
A cocktail of love and fear threatens families into spending countless hours and dollars preparing their kids to work. How much labor is done just so mothers and fathers feel like they can provide a chance at a secure future? How many sacrifices, small to devastating, do working Americans make every day to get their son or daughter into a house in the right school district or access to a college diploma? And how many of these sacrifices will be for naught? How many of them will cancel each other out?
The more families invest and strive within our competitive system, the faster we get to an “Advantageous” dystopia. There can be no advantage without a corresponding disadvantage for someone else. If privileged parents aspire to do more than accommodate the value system of their society, then it will require the unthinkable: Love your children less. Or at least, love other people’s children more.