★ ★ ★ ☆
A mix-and-match of “The Handmaid’s Tale” and any number of dystopian young adults tales “Level 16” is a powerful statement on the expectations levelled at young women.
The Vestalis Academy is a drab training centre where any deviation from the lesson plans of female virtue—cleanliness, obedience, humility and patience—gets students labelled “unclean” and results in a trip “downstairs” for severe punishment.
The kind of prep school that provides well-trained “daughters” to the highest bidder, its teachers educate on grooming, hygiene and life lessons like, “curiosity is the first vice,” and how to dress like the daughter of a top society family.
It’s also the only home its students have ever known. “When a girl is obedient and sweet the world cannot help but love her,” says Dr. Miro (Peter Outerbridge). “Follow the rules. Be patient. Let us take care of you. “
Each year is a level. “Level 16 is not like the other levels,” lectures the stern head mistress Miss Brixil (Sarah Canning). “All your training has lead up to this moment. Soon our sponsors will arrive to choose their new adopted daughters.” Interestingly, what the schooling doesn’t include are life skills like reading and writing.
The story focuses on Vivien (Katie Douglas) and Sophia (Celina Martin), two students who stop taking the “vitamins” that put them into a coma-like sleep every night. Working together they hatch a plan to save themselves and the others from a hideous fate.
Director Danishka Esterhazy’s “Level 16” details how so-called traditional feminine values can actually be tools of oppression. It’s a powerful message coupled with thoughts on objectification that pays off with a tense and horrifying climax that feels earned by the preceding story. (NO SPOILERS HERE!)
Esterhazy’s colour palate of grey, grey and more grey enhances the institutional nature of the story, helping to create the bleak atmosphere surrounding the students, most of whom find out the hard way that following the rules isn’t always the best path.
Mixing elements of social justice, horror and sci fi, “Level 16” is a genre movie that delivers both intellectually and emotionally.
3 ½ STARS