Advantageous: A Sundance Retrospective

Here’s a recounting of my trip to Sundance 2015.  It was fun.  I saw many movies.  This is my third movie review from that experience.

by Beau Wammack

It is perhaps not so rare to find art that hints at greatness while achieving plainly less.  The question quickly arises as to what greatness entails, and in particular what it entails when discussing film.  Is it Amy Adams performance in Junebug, which set her aflame?  Is it Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera work in A Little Princess, which proved no coincidence by the time we saw The New World and Children of Men?  Or what about Meet Joe Black, which, though surely not a tremendous film, contained a Thomas Newman score that is rapturous?  Direction, acting, DP work, etc. - it’s very common to find mediocre wholes made with some excellent parts.  Sometimes a film’s noteworthy aspects aren’t even its physical efforts; sometimes a film hints at greatness with regard to ideas or emotions.  If you can imagine a scratchy, rough-draft, GarageBand demo of, say, a Leonard Cohen record, then you’ll have an idea as to the kind of movie Advantageous proves to be.

Advantageous is a dystopian drama that I watched with many from the Into the Noise contingent.  This movie proved to be exactly what Into the Noise was made for: ongoing dialogue about a film, but moreso elicited by a film.  It is one which requests of the viewer a range of things, from honesty to self-reflection to malleability, and it is effortlessly provocative.  Somehow this movie came up in conversation again and again, and each discussion made me enjoy the film and the issues it raised more and more.

The nutshell version of Advantageous is that the world is becoming an increasingly difficult place to live, especially for women.  As mundane as that sounds, the ways in which those two intertwining theses are introduced and developed was, in my opinion, extraordinary.  This could be simply because this film, more than any of the others I saw at Sundance, contained components of which I am already expressly interested.  In fact, amidst the many conversations I had with people afterward it became clear that a big part of why they were not as captivated by the film was that its collection of issues was to them not as captivating.  Picture a story that includes: government and corporate surveillance; the rising cost of education for parents; terrorism; societal decorum and expectation; population over-crowding; infertility; the blurring distinction between humanity and A.I.; the stress of education and success foisted on children; the haves constraint and coercion of the have-nots; the apparently not-going-away-anytime-soon question of women in the workforce; mechanical & computer finitude and frailty; age & beauty; scarcity of water; drones; personal value; memory; privacy & communication; infidelity; homelessness; faith & religious extremism.  I’m in, you?

A mother and pre-teen daughter center the movie, and theirs is a crisis of getting ahead.  We learn that the mother has lost her job and now will not be able to pay the daughter’s tuition to an upper echelon school.  She finds she has aged-out of her previous career, with its dependency on youthful looks; she finds only spiritual platitudes from her unsupportive parents; she finds that past mistakes now preclude an open door of assistance from others in her life; and she finds that she herself is unwilling to allow her daughter to lose the appearance of privilege and competitive edge that her societal caste requires.  As the situation becomes increasingly dire, this mother allows herself to consider measures that are outside her morals and ethics.

Most of the afore-mentioned list of ingredients - homelessness, drones, etc. - play small, nonessential roles, but their mere presence onscreen was enough to stir me up.  This is in no way to say that Advantageous is a great film; I’m not even sure that it is a truly good film.  They clearly made a mighty effort with the CG, but probably they needed a few more long hours of rendering (and a few more large bundles of cash).  Some of the editing is over-eager, and some of the performances come across as languid, missing vibrancy and ushering the viewer toward disinterest.  And, frankly, some of the ingredients, the sum of which I so enjoyed, are really a bit superfluous and lean too far toward plot holes (or what would be plot holes if they were anything more than snippets).  For instance, one of my friends pointed out that when the topic of the burgeoning population and limited resources is brought up, it should have coincided with some images of, well, boatloads of sorry-looking people.  But at no point, there or in the rest of the movie, do we see boatloads of people, sorry-looking or otherwise.

Yet other elements are profound, and profoundly broached and considered.  For example, the final quarter of the movie deals largely with the question of physicalism, that is to say the question of which parts that make up a person are the most integral, and might there be anything beyond those parts that is required (the simple illustration I’m most familiar with regarding physicalism is: Are you a body? Or are you a body plus a soul?).  This movie weighs in on this dialectic in rich and forceful ways, such that the viewer is allowed, even encouraged, to consider what precisely constitutes a person - is it a body? or memory? or personality? or devotion? - and, if forced to choose, which components might one be willing to give up.  The chronology included in such issues and decisions only deepens the subject and broadens the questions.

Years ago I had a close friend who suffered a severe hiking accident, one that resulted in massive head trauma.  If you were to ask me, “Was he the same person?”, I might reply that yes, he was the same person - he had the same history, same birthday, same family, etc.  But if you were to ask me two minutes later, “Was he the same person”, I might reply that no, in fact he was a completely different person - he’d become a person whose interpersonal sensitivities were drastically reduced and who, both mentally and even physically, only marginally resembled the friend I’d previously known so well.  But…then wait a moment…ask me again…who knows what I’d say.  If you inquire as to what are the required facets of personhood, I’m admittedly at a loss.

Advantageous brings up those and other questions in a believable and troubling manner.  That the film’s setting of not-too-distant future looks and sounds in essence like our present makes those questions seem all the more pressing.  And, again, the filmmakers have made the exceedingly appropriate choice to stuff the proceedings full of so many of the issues of our day, especially those issues that we are only on the cusp of deliberating and witnessing, that the viewer cannot help but be enmeshed.

I’m reminded of last year’s World Cup, which I watched nearly every minute of.  One of the best parts of watching soccer is the commentary, and one of the best English-language soccer commentators is Ian Darke.  I clearly remember his turn of phrase for an accurate shot on goal that does not get through, the kind that proves one team has muster and sets the other team on edge.  Mr. Darke often refers to this as “asking questions.”  Advantageous is the kind of movie that is asking questions.  It is certainly not a manifest success, but its matters of contention are bold in number and unnervingly prescient, and I highly recommend it.

Advantageous is currently streaming on Netflix.