“There are no friends in this place.”
The word ‘dystopia’ is bandied around a lot nowadays, probably because it tends to feel very much like if we’re not in one already, that’s pretty much the way that things seem to be going. It seems that art sometimes imitates life, rather than vice versa, and there’s certainly a market for dystopian or cacotopian visions, be they in writing, or in television and film.
One of the most relevant in recent times has been the TV series adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. With Series 3 about to start in the US, it couldn’t feel any more timely, as a tale of women being used as mere chattels under state control; news of a recent and continued onslaught against women’s rights in America make it all the more poignant and pertinent, as access to abortion becoming increasingly limited is the latest indication of the move towards the commoditisation of women in what is supposedly the Free World.
The Handmaid’s Tale – whether as novel or series – is perhaps the closest parallel to Level 16, the latest movie from Canadian filmmaker Danishka Esterhazy. It tells the tale of the Vestalis Academy, which seems to be a curious mixture of orphanage and finishing school for young ladies, raised there from birth through to the age of 16, with the girls being mentored in the ways of virtue and obedience, in preparation to be adopted by the wealthy ‘sponsors’. But, as you might expect, things aren’t quite as clear cut as they seem on the surface, and there’s a dark secret which lies beneath the facade of the institution.
It’s another example of sci-fi storytelling being able to scratch the veneer of our current society and give us a cautionary tale of what might lie ahead, particularly if we continue on the regressive path we seem to be treading. This renewed war on women’s reproductive and other rights at the moment comes across as a retaliation for the rise of the #MeToo culture, and a way of trying to put women back in what is evidently perceived in some quarters as being their place, so Level 16 ties neatly into this contemporary struggle, showing a world where girls are conditioned to be humble, meek and compliant, in return for apparently being rewarded for this by having an opportunity at a better life.
READ MORE: The Witch – Review
The focal points in the story are Vestalis Academy students Vivien (Katie Douglas) and Sophia (Celina Martin), both of whom have reached Level 16, which is the final stage before being adopted. Despite the Academy splitting the girls into different groups each time they move on a Level in order to try and discourage friendships or attachments being formed, Sophia has a connection with Vivien, and she’s found out there’s more going on than they have been told, so she tries to open Vivien’s eyes to the truth, and get her assistance in uncovering what actually lies in store for them, as well as the other young women who are about to leave.
In some ways, it bears similarities to Battle Royale, in that both movies features adolescents being exploited by corrupt adults (albeit for very different reasons), and being victims of a broken and corrupt system. In addition to that, the starched and formal uniforms which the Vestalis Academy gives to its girls are very stylised, and rather reminiscent in some ways of the sorts of outfits that you would see in films like Battle Royale, or other movies with from Asia featuring schoolchildren, as they do have a very distinctive look, one which suits the mood and feel of the piece perfectly.
The production design is also very strong, with the majority of the film taking place in the very claustrophobic confines of the Vestalis Academy, with its drab grey/blue walls. The palate is largely drained of any bright colours, giving the impression that anything which would be stimulating to a young mind has been banished from the confines of the Academy; this helps stress the soul crushing nature of the institution, and throws into sharp focus the fact that none of the girls there have ever seen the outside world. The only exposure they get to a life beyond the walls is in the form of a regular film night, but even these are in black and white, rather than colour.
Level 16 takes a few unexpected turns at times, although the clues about the true purpose of the Academy are there early on if you happen to be astute enough. It feels at first as though it’s going to take a well-trodden path, like so many other of these sorts of dystopian tales, yet it still somehow manages to surprise, and give you an ending which you wouldn’t have necessarily predicted. By dint of sheer fortuitous timing, it does feel incredibly current, and speaks a lot to what’s going on in the world around us now, giving it extra currency. A thoughtful piece, and far less obvious in its plotting that you might at first have expected, Level 16 is well worth you giving it 102 minutes of your time.
Level 16 is available to buy or rent on digital now.