Nobody Wants an Unclean Girl. After all, cleanliness is a virtue. And all the girls of the Vestalis Academy must adhere to the virtues if they ever hope to find a good home.
Set in a grey and weathered industrial building out of place and time, the dystopian thriller Level 16 is a timely feature about feminine power that follows the teenage girls of the Academy through the years of their mysterious schooling, each year bringing them to a new level, where they’re dressed in matching drab gowns and taught with an iron fist to adhere to the virtues of femininity. Cleanliness, yes, but also obedience, humility and patience. Fail to comply, and you’re taken “downstairs” for brutal punishment.
Our heroine Vivien (Katie Douglas) learned that lesson the hard way back in Level 10, when she helped her friend Sophia (Celina Martin) avoid punishment, only to wind up experiencing it for herself. Six years later, the two meet again in Level 16 with the promise of graduation and adoption waiting just around the corner. but Sophia knows a secret — nothing is what it seems, and Vestalis is no orphanage, it’s something much worse.
The girls have grown up in this system — this one building — with the sun never touching their face, taught to believe the air outside is poisonous, and they don’t know any different; a fact that makes them painfully naive and compliant, willingly bowing their heads and idolizing the antiquated behavior of the old-timey actresses they see on “moving-picture night.” Their matriarch, Miss Brixil (Sarah Canning) is a platinum-haired boss bitch with a whiff of BDSM who is distinctly neither obedient nor patient, but a determined enforcer of the rules that keep the academy in business — a female oppressor of women, who’s insecurity and self-serving ambition overpowers her morality and better judgment.
The latest from Canadian filmmaker Danishka Esterhazy, Level 16 builds a compelling, complete little world in the halls of this institution that would feel right at home in a better-than-average YA novel, though here it’s perfectly scaled down for the requirements of a 102-minute movie. Esterhazy tells us exactly as much as we need to know, keeping the mystery of Vistalis alive and threading along the mystery until the grotesque ultimate reveal. While Esterhazy’s society of oppressed girls certainly has threads of The Handmaid’s Tale in its analysis of how traditional feminine values can be used to silence and subdue women, it’s teenage tale isn’t focused on sex and motherhood, but other ways the female body is exploited and peddled in ways that help keep women down.
It’s also about how women overcome those burdens, and more broadly, how we fight back against conformity and obedience to discover freedom. Esterhazy gives these girls an empowering fight for independence and self-discovery, played out through the troubled but deep friendship between Vivien and Sophia, and the realization that the most direct path to strength is to have faith in one another and have each other’s backs. The action and stomach-churning reveals keep Level 16 from feeling preachy (though occasionally some of the dialogue feels a bit on-the-nose,) and the thrust of Vivien and Sophia’s friendship keeps the drama engrossing throughout.
All told, Level 16 is a sharp little sci-fi thriller that does dystopia right, and like all the best bleak visions of a future world, it offers commentary worth sinking your teeth into. Mercifully, it also offers hope and a that’s both timeless, and strikingly timely.
Level 16 made its world premiere at Fantastic Fest 2018 and does not yet have a release date.