Level 16 review: Members of a female facility that teaches the values of feminine virtues begin to question the world around them in this female-dominated, timely slice of dystopian science-fiction.
Obedience, cleanliness, patience and humility. These are just four of the seven ‘feminine virtues’ that the ‘clean’ girls of Level 16 adhere to. Rescued from a polluted and deadly world, the young women of the Vestalis Academy have spent their lives living underground in a heavily guarded ward following strict rule and regulations. After an incident on Level 10 when they were young, close friends Vivien (Katie Douglas) and Sophia (Celina Martin) are reunited on Level 16 at which point Sophia begins to open Vivien’s eyes to the dark truth behind their enforced captivity.
The story of writer and director Danishka Esterhzy’s Level 16 sounds like it could have been lifted straight out of the page of a Young Adult novel. It is surprising then to discover that it’s completely original, having been written way before Young Adult fiction turned film was even a thing. The familiar trademarks, a strong-willed teenage girl, dystopian or post-apocalyptic world, shady institution and even shadier adults, serves to make Level 16 a more accessible film for the masses. It might not have the budget of the likes of The Hunger Games or The Maze Runner, but what Level 16 lacks in spectacle, it more than makes up for in style and intrigue.
A film of this type is only as good as its central performance, and Katie Douglas is a force to be reckoned with as Vivien. Her portrayal is effortless, and a hardy mixture of vulnerability, ferocity and wry cunning. Watching Vivien evolve from strict and disciplined disciple to strong and defiant rule-breaker sees Douglas thrown through the emotional gauntlet, but she wears the role well and keeps the audience fully captivated by Vivien’s plight. Celina Martin’s Sophia, a tragic character whom has suffered the torment of knowledge alone for years, beautifully compliments Douglas, and the pair both have strong career’s ahead of them.
The set design and overall aesthetic of the film work perfectly with the events unfolding on screen. To further highlight the girls drab and mundane existence, they live in a world of greys, dressing in dark teals, and everything is rather dull. As the narrative progresses, and Vivien begins to evolve, so too does the colour palette, gradually bringing in more colour. It’s a subtle choice from Esterhazy, but is very effective.
The story itself unravels at a slow and steady pace, Esterhazy giving the plot time to breathe. There’s plenty of time and opportunities for the viewer to try and work out the mysterious secret with several well-thought-out red herrings peppered within. Events unfold in a fairly uniform way, but the revelation is satisfying and, as with the rest of the film, makes a very interesting comment on the values of femininity. The subject matter is so rich it easily lends itself to further investigation and creates a rare example of a film you genuinely would like a sequel for.
In the Times Up era, Level 16 is a film with a strong female voice. Told through the female gaze, don’t expect the typical titillation that comes with a group of females locked-up together, but rather a stark, eye-opening mirror on our society which still tries to box in women. The values that the girls are expected to live by are outdated and unwelcome, and yet still shockingly prevalent in our own world. Seeing the girls watch videos where they are told what to do to be ‘proper’ young women is amusing in a Starship Troopers ‘Would You Like to Know More?‘ propaganda video type way, but it’s also a little horrifying.
A female-focused tale of science-fiction dystopian thrills, Level 16 has enough familiarity to appeal to the masses, whilst offering enough intrigue for the few. Though it may fall into some expected sci-fi tropes, there’s a strong and powerful statement being made in Level 16; one that deserves to be seen by all. For those thinking science-fiction is a man’s world, prepare to think again.
Level 16 review by Kat Hughes, March 2019.
Level 16 screened at Frightfest Glasgow.