Cleanliness is next to godliness and at the Vestalis Academy, they want their students to be squeaky clean. Groups of young women, separated into ‘halls’ where they have lived all their lives, are taught the four feminine virtues of obedience, cleanliness, patience and humility. An unforgivably Victorian and oppressive regime, the girls of Danishka Esterhazy’s Level 16 are taught through sixteen different levels, which upon completion will allow them to be adopted by a new family.
It’s a decidedly dystopian set-up, one that lends itself clearly to comparisons with The Handmaid’s Tale and YA fiction popularised around the time of The Hunger Games and Divergent. With a distinctly low-budget set-up, Esterhazy’s film takes the genre back to basics before revolution and gunfire. It’s a strong script, one that holds a mirror up to the ideals projected on young women and gives them a sci-fi twist. Taught that curiosity and anger (arguably two mainstays of feminist culture) are abhorrent vices, the girls are illiterate, dressed in drab modest clothing with no exposure to the outside world other than a select number of Golden Era Hollywood films. Their daily routine consists of cleaning, classes in grooming and presentation and taking the vitamins that supposedly keep them healthy.
This routine is disturbed when Vivien (Katie Douglas) is moved to a new hall to begin Level 16, reuniting her with an old class member Sophia (Celina Martin), who tells her to stop taking the vitamins. Caving in to the curiosity she’s consistently repressed, Vivien stops taking them, discovering that she no longer sleeps right through the night. Unknowingly drugged by the school doctor Miro (Peter Outerbridge) every night of their lives, with their new found freedom Vivien and Sophia begin to unravel the mysteries of the school (if you could even call it that) and what really happens during the night, all the while the girls are preparing themselves to meet the ‘sponsors’ that will hopefully become their new families.
With each revelation of the night-time activities the film takes continuously sinister turns. There’s corporal punishment, sexual assault and human trafficking, dropping enough meaty clues along the way to formulate one’s own guesses about the actual purpose of the academy, each one as unpleasant as the next. While the audience can find plenty of morsels to root around for, the girls face a larger problem; they have grown up in such a repressive space that it’s difficult for them to find solutions to their problems. Unable to read and with no real knowledge of the horrors of the outside world their savvy cannot really be utilised here. This does lead to a loss of momentum in the pacing when the girls spend considerable time grappling with how to escape but the lead performance from Katie Douglas is strong nonetheless; she possesses similar qualities to Florence Pugh in her quietly headstrong depiction of one girl’s personal revolution.
The set décor may be minimal and gloomy but it works well within the films limits, enforcing the depressive state of the girls’ existence upon us, also offsetting the ultimate story of empowerment within Esterhazy’s script that draws to a gruesome finale. The female gaze is undeniable here, it’s rare to see women directing sci-fi features in general, let alone one that stands on such a socio-political pedestal so that alone deserves commendation. The film remains uncomplicated by never reaching for anything more complex than commentary on female beauty standards and historical ideals about women’s behaviour; but it is confident in its standpoint and delivers them to eerie effect. Merging elements of The Handmaid’s Tale’s dystopian feminist themes and some creepy horror akin to Get Out, Level 16 delivers a politically relevant message about the commodification young women face.
Dir: Danishka Esterhazy
Scr: Danishka Esterhazy
Cast: Katie Douglas, Celina Martin, Sara Canning, Peter Outerbridge
Prd: James Wayman, Judy Holm, Michael McNamara
DOP: Samy Inayeh
Music: Menalon, Joseph Murray, Lodewijk Vos
Run time: 102 minutes
Signature Entertainment presents Level 16 on Digital HD from 27th May, 2019