So, yesterday, I read this interview with Jennifer Phang director of Advantageous, and immediately added it to my Netflix queue, and set aside my evening plans to watch it.
I have soooooo many thoughts about this film. It is not an easy film to watch, by any means. But it is beautiful and thought-provoking. After watching it, I started it again, re-watching the many different scenes that touched me, often sitting in my chair with it paused trying to sort out my thoughts. Most of which were about how this movie set in the future felt like an indictment of our present. My high school English teacher Mrs. Knorr always told us "there is more truth in fiction." She was right.
At its most basic level, this film is about choices. In nearly every scene we see someone making a choice of one kind of another. The little choices we make on a daily basis and those that set the course of our lives, and the lives of others.
In this future, as it is in our own present, it is how one goes about making these choices that defines their character. But as it is in our time, this is more an illusion of choice than anything else. Available options are often limited and far outside one's ability to influence. And in many cases, the only choice is no choice at all, with the only options to either accept something terrible or suffer the consequences. While it is true our choices may define us, it is our options that set the parameters of our lives.
The set up for this film is like a mash-up of the worst parts of both Brazil and The Handmaid's Tale. We have an overpopulated future where the elite are painfully oblivious to the suffering of the general public, carrying on with their luncheons and school events and reaffirming their role as the privileged class, while resistance fighters attack public targets, and a religiously motivated social movement directs the fate of women as a kind of backlash for the gains they'd made in the previous century.
This future is a society where there are few jobs to be had, where a woman's appearance is key to her success, and where youth is her main selling point. Once she reaches a certain age, 40 let's say, she is no longer employable. A world where a woman would act in a way that is against her best interest simply to have a place to exist. And where, once that place is threatened, she would willingly sacrifice anything and everything she has to ensure a place for her daughter. A world where a secure life is limited to the elite, and one does whatever is advantageous to ensure success.
Early in the film we see three girls walking home from school, playing a guessing game. At one point, one girl turns to another and says, "Only one of you can be the winner. If you cheat, then nobody wins." This professed need for fairness is in contrast to the world surrounding them where nothing is, in fact, fair. News reports in the background give us details about this seemingly quiet and clean world -- unemployment is rampant and terrorist attacks are a regular occurrence.
Those who tend to benefit from advantages tend to see their placement in society as what is fair. We see it time and again in discussions around privilege -- those who benefit from it often don't see it. They are convinced that everyone is faced with the same options, and instead believe they have simply achieved more because they made better choices. Or, even worse, they know very well the privilege they carry, and choose to use it to promote their own well being at the expense of others.
In this world we meet single mother Gwen and her daughter Jules. Gwen works as the spokeswoman for the benign-sounding Center for Advanced Health and Living. As part of her job she writes eloquent statements to sell her company's products. And much like in our own world, the marketers of this world use the lingo of the oppressed for their own purposes.
"In fact, the decisions we make in life define us. So shouldn't every woman be defined by the totality of her choices, rather than her race, height, or health. These are things she often cannot control. Here at the Center for Advanced Health and Living, we are working to offer you the safest alternatives to invasive cosmetic surgery so you'll have every chance to be the you you were meant to be."I wonder, when Gwen wrote and then delivered that line, whether she had any kind of inkling how it would eventually impact her own life? How could she have known it would turn around, all twisted and gnarled, to cut her down once it was too late to change her decision? Which, of course, we quickly learn wasn't much of a choice. She's been caught in a trap; led to this point by the machinations of others. Can we judge a raccoon's decision to gnaw off its own leg to save itself? Or, in this case, a mother making the ultimate sacrifice for her daughter?
"This is the only time in your daughter's life where her choices will make a difference."Tragically, this is truer than anyone would want. And by "her" choices, they mean her family's choices; her mother's. A mother's love and support alone are not enough to make it in this world. "Access costs money." And without access, there is no healthy future. In a world where only the elite can any kind of life worth living, people will give up their very lives to ensure their children become one of them, and those in power will be able to use that to their advantage.
"I have to position Jules now. If I can get her into a good school, she'll have a chance. I can't let her become one of those women, so desperate that they would do anything."
But just as much as this is a movie about the choices a mother will make to protect her daughter, it's also a movie about her decision to become a mother in the first place. Gwen, and Jules, have been living with the fallout from Gwen's choices prior to motherhood. We do not know exactly why she has broken from her parents, but she is adamant that her father will never meet Jules, just as she is adamant that Jules' father will never be a part of their lives. She has been estranged from her "one and only cousin" Lily's life since Jules' birth, which, as we learn later, has been Gwen's decision in order to protect her from a mistake Gwen made when they were younger.
The decision to live as a single mother in this world was a dangerous one, she knew, but she also hoped it would give her life meaning; make it worthwhile. And, in its own way, her ultimate decision simply confirms that. It is her undying love for her daughter that drives everything she does. She cannot change the very system they are both trapped in. So she works within her constraints to give her daughter the very best chance. And then, she goes one step further and gives her something authentic to hold on to as she makes her way in this world.
"Listen to me. It's good to be humble, but you need to know your value. The ideas, the wisdom, and the kindness in you. That's the secret beauty everyone wants."And this is what I find so beautiful, so touching in this film. Despite the hardship and loneliness and this terrible choice she is forced to make, she does it all with the purest of motivations: love.
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