This claustrophobic, pared-down Canadian film from writer-director Danishka Esterhazy has the feel of a science fiction dystopia – though it’s never quite clear whether it takes place in the future, the past, the present, or an alternate history, after the manner of The Handmaid’s Tale, The Seasoning House, Red Sparrow or Never Let Me Go. A mystery element puts off revealing what the actual premise (which is the wheelhouse of all the cited items) is, but the point isn’t so much the solution as a sense of the day-to-day process of treating girls in an institution as saleable objects.
We meet a clutch of girls first on Level 10, as ten-year-olds, in a prologue when one girl’s impulsive act to look out for a friend is rewarded as brutal guards (in sunglasses, speaking Evil Eastern European) haul her off for ‘punishment’. Then, six years later, Vivien (Katie Douglas) – who has learned to be tough and not stick her neck out – is again in a dorm with Sophia (Celina Martin) – still guilt-wracked about her one-time cowardice. The Vestalis Academy seems to be an orphanage, with promise that the girls will be taken away by loving rich families, but the populace are drilled in feminine virtues (obedience and cleanliness) by ice queen on heels Miss Brixil (Sara Canning), take ‘vitamins’ that make them sleep nineteen hours a day, aren’t taught to read, are told the air outside is toxic and instilled with a rigorous skincare regimen, and trudge through their five-hour waking periods with only the occasional old movie for entertainment (all are named after classic film stars). Vivien, who has suppressed her unfeminine and unvirtuous curiosity, feels a connection with Dr Miro (Peter Outerbridge), ostensibly the kindlier official at the Academy, but only when Sophia persuades her to stop taking the blue pill does she start to realise how bad her situation really is.
Level 16 is an austere film, with characters who have been forced to repress their feelings, but it makes a strong, affecting emotional connection … and the inevitable uprising in the last act is properly suspenseful, since the film plays out so evenly that it’s hard to predict just how ruthless it’s going to be at the finish. Douglas is especially strong as the locked-down lead, but there’s a nice feint involving the more obvious rebel played by Martin – in which, for a moment, we wonder whether we’ve been following the wrong girl through this story. The drab institutional environment (all greys and blues and no proper light but no real dark either) is effectively oppressive, but also interestingly run-down – with tiny scenes suggesting that the money is running out for this understaffed evil venture and a sub-plot about how they’re having to rely on less trustworthy staff, making the crisis of the finale much more credible.