Sometimes, you see a haunting short film that just cries out to become a full-length movie. Case in point: Advantageous, a short film by Jennifer Phang released in 2013. She’s expanded it to full length, and the added time and budget have turned a beautiful short into an eerily intense feature.

Some minor plot spoilers follow.

Advantageous is a film set in the near-future, in what seems like a pre-dystopic world. It centers on a single mother named Gwen, who is the head of the Center for Advanced Health and Living. She’s in danger of losing her job due to being too old for the demographic the Center is looking to target. She’s increasingly desperate to keep her job and secure a future for her daughter, Jules (Samantha Kim). And the only way to do that is to volunteer as a test subject for the radical new procedure that the Center had originally hired her to promote.

Phang — who wrote the film with Jacqueline Kim, who also stars — sketches this world with a very light hand. In fact, viewing the original short first may help to fill in some of the blanks about why Gwen is so desperate: Unemployment’s at 45%, and there are no more public schools. The only options for the brilliant Jules is a place in a super-selective free magnet school, or a very expensive private school. And Jules didn’t get into the magnet.

The future of Advantageous is clearly spinning into despair. There’s a homeless child sleeping in the planter near Gwen and Jules’ apartment. There are news stories about the rise in child prostitution. And throughout the film, explosions go off in the background, the result of terrorist attacks from a generation that sees the future crumbling.

Contrasting with that is world of the elite, which Gwen hovers on the edges of, constantly reminding her that the game is rigged. When Jules doesn’t get into the magnet, despite her brilliance, Gwen is told that it’s just as likely that they didn’t know the right people. Gwen is invited to a lunch of mothers sending their children to the private school she can’t afford, and is told that the real connections Jules needs are made a pre-camp, that will cost another ten thousand dollars — discounted from the thirty that these other women have already paid. And even that only gives the preteen Jules a chance at security. It doesn’t guarantee anything.

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A lot of the societal problems of Advantageous are slight exaggerations of problems that we face now. Jules is brilliant—but there are a million brilliant kids, and only so many slots. And many of those slots are taken up by those who already have money. Gwen has a graduate degree, but she can only get a job as the “face” of a product. She’s even reminded that her generation doesn’t have the skills to compete, since all of education is now STEM-based. It’s a short step from here to there, and another short step from there to a full blown dystopia.

The whole film is framed in a way that makes clear that Gwen has no choice—the system is stacked against her. In a desperate bid to make an 45% unemployment rate seem normal, the elites promote the value of keeping women out of the workforce. Because better that than “putting millions of desperate men on the street.” And the rich mothers Gwen meets with are appalled that Jules has no father. Gwen is too old, too female, and too unconnected to do anything other than offer herself up as a sacrifice.

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The people she works for know that. It’s less a shocking reveal and more a resigned “of course” when we find out that the Center has made sure that Gwen has no options other than to offer herself up as a guinea pig for its product. It doesn’t even seem necessary to make sure she can’t get another job elsewhere—society’s done that already.

But taking away all of Gwen’s leverage is necessary. The procedure involves putting an older mind’s memories into a younger body. But the Center wants complete control over the face of their new mind-switching technology—because Gwen’s own face doesn’t have mass appeal. Left unspoken is the idea that Gwen’s also “too Asian” in her current body.

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Themes of identity and choice are at the center of Advantageous. There’s the identity that Gwen has no control over—her age, race, and gender—and the one she does—being the mother of Jules. Gwen chose to be a mother, at the expense of the rest of her familial relationships. And now, she’ll choose her daughter at the expense of every other part of her identity. Including being Jules’ mother, since there’s a dark secret hiding in that procedure she agrees to do.

Then there’s Gwen 2.0 (Freya Adams), who struggles to connect with Jules, and also has to make a choice about whether she’ll be the person the original Gwen wanted her to be, or someone else.

The relationship between Gwen and Jules anchors the whole film. So it’s a very good thing that Jacqueline Kim and Samantha Kim are so good at conveying how deep that relationship is. They never say “I love you so much” or “You are my whole world,” but it’s clear on the screen. Clear in the last Christmas they spend together, before Gwen becomes Gwen 2.0. Clear in the French they speak to each other and the piano they play. It makes the disconnect between Jules and Gwen 2.0 heartbreaking, and their groping attempts to move closer to each other such a wonderful sight.

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It’s not the plot that makes this movie so good. The conceit of being able to upload your mind into a younger, prettier body isn’t new. Even the twist about what that procedure really entails isn’t a true surprise. But the subtle world-building gives this story a brand new polish. For example, Gwen is made to sell this procedure as a cure for people with illnesses or debilitating injuries, but everything we’ve seen of this world makes clear that only the rich elites who already have a leg up will have access to it. Phang and Kim’s script lightly sketches everything Gwen has done for her daughter, so you understand why she does what she does. The film also benefits from Phang’s light touch with sound, music, and color.

And the film also benefits massively from excellent performances. In addition to the two lead parts — three if you count Gwen 2.0 — special recognition has to go to James Urbaniak as Dave Fisher, Gwen’s superior at the company. He has to carry what little exposition there is, trying to talk Gwen out of the procedure and Gwen 2.0 into honoring the first Gwen’s sacrifice. There’s also a chillingly mercenary Jennifer Ehle as his superior, Isa Cryer. And Ken Jeong has a bit role as Han, reminding everyone how wonderfully restrained he can be.

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People are going to judge Advantageous by the things it lacks. There are no battles, no mustache-twirling villains, and not even any giant science fiction spectacle sets. People are also going to judge it for what it has. There are some intense discussions of classism, racism, ageism, sexism, and elitism. But don’t judge this movie for either of those things—instead, it’s worth appreciating for all the things it does so incredibly well.

See the original Advantageous short here. The full film is on Netflix.


Contact the author at katharine@io9.com.

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