Level 16


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Level 16
"The more science fiction you have watched (or read), the more chills you will feel running down your spine as the carefully structured story plays out."

Level 16 is not like the other levels. It's the last one before the girls' time at the Academy is over. With so little time left, it's all the more important to make a good impression, and Vivien (Katie Douglas) is determined to be the best of the best. She follows the rules scrupulously. She's diligent about her personal appearance and she always takes her pills. Most importantly, she doesn't let herself get sentimental about the other girls, seeing them as rivals rather than potential friends. This isn't difficult when classes keep getting rearranged between levels anyway. But one day she's unexpectedly placed in a dorm room with somebody she first met years ago. Somebody with a secret that will change everything.

Sophia (Celina Martin) has stopped taking her pills. She's no longer convinced that things in the Academy are what they appear to be, but she can't take her search for the truth any further without help. Putting her trust in Vivien is a desperate gamble. It's also an act of female solidarity in a system designed to destroy it. And she knows it won't take long for Vivien, once sober, to realise that things are seriously amiss.

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Shot almost entirely in dorm rooms, narrow corridors and tiny instruction rooms where the girls crowd together to watch videos, Level 16 keeps its imagery claustrophobic and its narrative tight. Shut away from a world they are warned is toxic, kept in the dark like veal calves, the girls may be discovering things that shock them but they're still not learning very much. For the viewer, the mystery unfolds as a collection of bewildering fragments. The girls can remember nothing of life before they arrived in this place. it's only halfway through, when we see Vivien sounding out letters on a printed sash, that we realise - despite this supposedly being a school - nobody has taught them how to read. In this state of cultivated ignorance, they can't even interpret the clues they have around them.

The more science fiction you have watched (or read), the more chills you will feel running down your spine as the carefully structured story plays out. Writer/director Danishka Esterhazy hints at a succession of dystopian possibilities; yet for all this, much of the film's power comes from its grounding in contemporary reality. The way the girls are controlled is not so different from what one can see every day in many schools. At first they seem to be learning etiquette, skills that might help them to make an impression in Society, but gradually it comes to feel more like obedience training. They are too well brought up, too cautious to express anger, but Esterhazy's own lies only just below the surface.

Though it struggles from the inevitable difficulty in producing a denouement that fully satisfies after all this build-up, Level 16 is a beautifully structured and profoundly disturbing film anchored by strong performances from its young leads. It's a reminder of how easy it is to render other human beings socially and psychologically as well as physically helpless, and as in the best dystopian science fiction, whilst we can admire the courage of those who resist, we cannot be sure that it's enough.

Reviewed on: 01 Mar 2019
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Level 16 packshot
Two girls trapped in a prison-like boarding school embark on a dangerous search to uncover the truth behind their imprisonment.

Director: Danishka Esterhazy

Writer: Danishka Esterhazy

Starring: Katie Douglas, Celina Martin, Sara Canning

Year: 2018

Runtime: 102 minutes

Country: Canada

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