“Ultimate Concern”

Heeding the advice of the internet, Leeman and I recently checked out the independent film Advantageous on Netflix. The full-length film expands on a short which is easily accessible on YouTube.

Advantageous

Like the best specimens of science-fiction, Advantageous takes worrisome elements of our own contemporary culture and plays them out to their logical conclusion. The world of the film is what we might describe as pre-dystopian. Society still functions at a reasonable stable level, though the disparity between the rich and poor has clearly intensified. We only see one family unit comfortably in the “middle class.” Others have effectively traced the link between the depersonalized process of finding employment depicted and the dire prospects faced by today’s job-seekers in the Millennial generation. Most hauntingly, however, is how the filmmakers depict what current pundits have termed the “precariat” — the class of workers who, though employed, still cannot count on continued stability.

It is in such a precarious situation that we meet Gwen, the film’s central character. Gwen is clearly well-educated, and she holds a position as the “face” of a biotech corporation promoting a new technology promising unlimited youth and vitality. Yet from the earliest moments of the film we see how uncertain her life is. All around her we see women living on the streets, with no hope of employment. At one point, Gwen hears both her upstairs and downstairs neighbours weeping bitterly, presumably at the lack of hope they see in the world around them. The world of Advantageous is, it seems, particularly hostile to single women as the prevailing wisdom has determined unemployed women pose less threat to society than unemployed, frustrated men — such an assertion may be fodder for discussion another day.

Gwen’s fragile situation comes to a breaking point when, instead of having her contract renewed with an expected raise, she is let go in favour of a younger face with more “universal appeal” (Gwen is Asian-American). While this would be troubling enough for Gwen, it is potentially disastrous for her daughter Jules as unemployment leaves Gwen without any means of sending her brilliant daughter to the only school available. And it especially makes it impossible to send her daughter to the pre-school “bonding camp” which may solidify her place among the rising social elite. Facing literally no other options, Gwen volunteers herself as the first human subject for the disturbing procedure she has been promoting.

It goes without saying that Advantageous is the type of film that raises many questions. Most of them are pretty black and white. If we do not check corporate greed and start forcing employers to see their employees as human beings we face a grim future as a society. We must force ourselves to face the reality of the rising tide of income inequality. We must value what is unique in human beings which cannot be replicated by artificial intelligences.

Nevertheless, what has stuck with me in the last few days since watching the film are the questions to which it does not offer such clear perspective. Notably in the sacrifices Gwen is prepared to make in order to ensure the best hope for Jules’ future. One can (rightly) argue that Gwen is an incredibly selfless character. Every decision she makes, she makes for the good of her daughter. And yet I wonder if, in in Gwen’s profound sacrifices, there is still a problematic, deeply individualist and deeply selfish attitude at work.

For all that Gwen herself is a product of the forces that have created the precarious, profoundly unequal society in which she lives — her goal is by no means to push against those forces. Gwen is not a social justice warrior. Her objective is to ensure, at whatever cost, that her daughter at the very least does not end up in her own “disadvantageous” position. Such an attitude is all well and good. Certainly, as I watched Gwen’s struggles, I felt sure I would be drawn to make similar sacrifices for the good of my own daughter. It is perfectly natural and human.

But can these sacrifices truly be seen as “selfless.” If we recognize that the systems of our world are fundamentally broken, is it enough for us to give of ourselves to ensure that our children have the best of these broken systems (particularly if we consider ourselves people of faith)? How do I as a parent balance wanting what is best for my child with pushing against injustice and inequality? Author and vlogger John Green asked a similar question on the birth of his son. As much as he loves his child, is it enough for his immediate family to be his “ultimate concern,” or should he be called to something higher?

I am not sure I have an answer to that question. All I can say is that as we all muddle along in a world perilously close to the world depicted in Advantageous, we must find some way to be mindful of how we are all in this together. We must find ways to push against unjust systems, even while we work within them.

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