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My First Sundance Journal Day 5-6: Advantageous and the Sundance sci-fi problem

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Finally, the mother-daughter clone-brain drama Sundance has been waiting for

I'm leaving the Sundance Film Festival feeling a little conflicted. The good news: I found a movie that felt close to being "mine," in that I felt that kind of heart-tugging urgency one feels after encountering a work of art that finds some little click of affinity inside you. It's a wild, slightly manic, not unpleasant feeling: you find yourself wandering in a loopy, Family Circus-esque trajectory as you leave the venue; you nearly text several people about your excitement before thinking better of it; you feel the need both to talk to someone immediately and to greedily horde the experience for yourself; you feel an inexplicable longing to live inside the good thing you just saw, or better yet, to somehow become it.

Philosophical implications worthy of a Black Mirror Mother's Day special

That was me, bumbling around the outside of the Library Center Theatre after the premiere screening of Advantageous. Jennifer Phang's second feature was the first sci-fi film I had seen at the festival, as well as the first genre film in general. It's a quiet, deliberately paced story of a woman, her daughter, and a medical procedure with philosophical implications worthy of a Black Mirror Mother's Day special. Gwen (Jacqueline Kim, who also co-wrote the film) is a spokeswoman for a new-fangled body-swapping procedure, who must undergo the procedure herself in order to keep her job and be able to ensure a good future for her daughter, Jules (Samantha Kim). It's moody and specific and is a rare sci-fi film to nail its human emotion — particularly the mother-daughter relationship at its center — just as expertly, if not more so, as its more lofty philosophical questions.

And here was the conflict — I knew even before the lights came up that this film would not receive the three-minute-long standing ovation that Me, Earl and the Dying Girl had received at its premiere. Park City moms would not be gushing about it on the shuttle back to Main Street. Its dearth of recognizable stars (aside from perhaps Ken Jeong, who produced the film and has a small supporting role) would mean a dearth of press cameras on its red carpet and a proportional lack of pictweets from trade reporters. I can't point to any specific thing that made me sure of this (aside from the general persecution complex I tend to project onto things that I feel passionately about; don't worry, I'm completely self-aware about this particular maladjustment of mine) other than two things Advantageous had done to put itself at an, ahem, disadvantage.

  1. It dared to be a science fiction film on a budget.
  2. It dared to star a nearly entirely Asian cast despite having a plot that has nothing specifically to do with being Asian.

The thing that's crazy about this is that when you talk about Sundance bait, Advantageous has it all: compelling parental drama, a thoughtful inquiry into the role of women in modern society, the support / star power of someone who's been on Community. But it had to go and muck it up by having the gall to imagine a world outside our current day contemporary one; to lay out its moralistic dilemma on a stage of its own invention. Advantageous takes place in an unspecified American city (looks vaguely like Brooklyn, so that's another checkmark on the Sundance bait list) in the year 2041. It's a world where gleaming, Dubai-like towers extend toward the clouds, over-programmed school children practice meditation in bucolic public green spaces, and daily terrorist attacks have become commonplace — citizens look over their shoulders and shrug as another plume of smoke rises over the city. Aside from its unexplained scant population (a trope of the indie sci-fi; hordes of extras in future-couture are expensive), it's a terribly plausible future and, like any good speculative fiction, lets its world-building unravel like a kind of mystery that plays out over the first half.

World-building that unravels like a mystery

For lovers of science fiction, new fictional worlds are like delightful puzzles, and figuring out how they work and how they are similar or prophetic about our own is half the fun of watching a film or reading a book for the first time. But not every audience member approaches sci-fi like that. It seems contradictory at an "indie" film festival, but much of the Sundance audience does not care to go along for a ride that they don't fully and immediately understand (unless Kristen Wiig is involved). A kind of familiarity is key, which of course is different than pleasantness — the faintest whiff of something sordid or edgy (but not unheard-of) is something Sundance audiences perennially get off on, like so many Sorel boot-wearing moths to a heat lamp. Alexander Skarsgard copulating with a 15-year-old? Bring it on. Hovercrafts in the background? Cringe.

Building a sci-fi premise is more like registering a patent than getting a script optioned

It is fair and logical that science fiction is evaluated by a different yardstick than standard dramatic films; building and conceiving of one is more like registering a patent than getting a script optioned. You've got to be first in your area of expertise — sorry, anyone who wants to do a Technological Singularity film after Transcendence — but it also has to function well enough to scare away imitators (and even then, you may never be safe — it took over a decade, but a small wave of Primer clones is finally upon us.) For so many people, that yardstick for science fiction exists arbitrarily below the human-interest drama, instead of parallel to it. And when a film like Advantageous comes along and manages to score high on both scales, oftentimes nobody's checking for it.

I had an urge — the type I almost never get — to go up to Phang after the screening and tell her how much I appreciated her film; maybe that accounted for my loopy freestyle walking. It wouldn't be a conversation; I'd just tell her how much I admired its assured pacing, its matter-of-fact brand of dystopia, its unshowy dedication to the uniquely female struggle of its protagonist. Aside from all that, it was terribly exciting to see a film full of Asian-American actors presented to us without explanation or apology. As Jules, Samantha Kim in particular struck me as an incredibly promising young talent; convincingly whip-smart, yet depressive and insecure in a way that anyone who's ever been a 13-year-old girl can identify with. Even now, I can barely think about the relationship between Gwen and Jules without getting emotional, something I can't say for the myriad fictional relationship constructs that have been presented to me on screen this week. And that's even before Gwen has her brain cloned into a new body.

I sincerely hope Advantageous is able to find a distribution deal that will grant it a bigger audience — an online audience perhaps, more open-minded about its kind of world-building. But more than its choice of genre or the ethnicity of its cast, I fear something even stupider may stand in the film's way: water. Specifically, the thoroughly B-grade CGI water that appears in two different establishing shots of futuristic, waterfall-adorned architecture. The mere possibility that all of Advantageous' rich ideas and emotions could be undercut by a few seconds of sub-par CGI fills one with a different kind of dystopian despair, but I'm also hard-pressed to think of a much more apt metaphor for contemporary Hollywood.