A dystopian prison film with a conceit designed for Handmaid’s Tale fans, Danishka Esterhazy’s Level 16 imagines a “school” in which girls are raised to be perfectly obedient and pristine for the families they’re told will someday adopt them. Initial hints of a Mean Girls-meets-Lord of the Flies complication don’t come to much in this straightforward pic, which will be zeitgeisty enough for some viewers while leaving most wanting something a bit more imaginative.
Katie Douglas stars as Vivien, one of the teenage residents of “The Vestalis Academy,” a windowless all-girl boarding school whose oppressive blue-grayness soon becomes a challenge for the film. Just assigned to a new dormitory level, Rose Hall, she greets her new roommates with a haughty “Each hall has its top girl and in this hall it’s me.”
Passive aggression and the threat of tattletales are the worst these girls offer each other, though: For as long as they can remember, they’ve been indoctrinated with social-engineering videos whose biggest mission is to make them passive. They’re taught above all to be “clean girls” who adhere to virtues like obedience and sweetness while avoiding all vice. Anger is the second vice. Curiosity is the first.
This old-fashioned sort of repression may not seem the most relevant way to comment on 21st-century gender politics, but it makes sense the more we learn about what’s going on here. Vestalis’ true agenda should remain a surprise, but stifling curiosity and physical boldness is essential to the methods of headmaster Brixil (Sara Canning) and the staff physician Dr. Miro (Peter Outerbridge).
One of Viv’s new roommates is Sophia (Celina Martin), who was her best friend long ago, before an innocent mistake earned Viv the wrath of Vestalis’ creepy, sunglass-wearing guards. Soph has been an outcast ever since, and has made some discoveries in her isolation. Reconnecting with the girl she still wishes were her friend, Sophia whispers secrets to her about what happens in this building when the lights go down. The two begin trying to escape.
The reasonably involving jailbreak plot that ensues draws a bit of novelty from the movie’s setting, but writer-director Esterhazy paints in broad strokes. Worried about Vivien’s growing independence but too fond of her to throw her immediately to the wolves, Dr. Miro counsels her, “When a girl is obedient and sweet, the world cannot help but love her.” With so few joys to discover inside these walls, even Viv lives for the idea that someone on the outside will eventually reward her with love. Soon, she’ll learn that solidarity with people she already knows is better.
Production company: Markham Street Films
Distributor: Dark Sky Films
Cast: Katie Douglas, Celina Martin, Sara Canning, Peter Outerbridge, Alexis Whelan
Director-screenwriter: Danishka Esterhazy
Producers: Judy Holm, Michael McNamara
Executive producer: James Weyman
Director of photography: Samy Inayeh
Production designer: Diana Magnus
Costume designer: Jennifer Stroud
Editor: Jorge Weisz
Composers: Menalon, Joseph Murray, Lodewijk Vos
Casting director: Jonathan Oliveira