Canadian filmmaker Danishka Esterhazy’s dark feminist dystopian fantasy Level 16 finds its most obvious point of comparison in the blockbuster success of Margaret Atwood’s cult 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, recently rebooted so successfully in Hulu’s series of the same name. But at its core, Level 16’s heritage about a group of girls raised in an ambiguous yet strict, militarized institution in many ways riffs on thematic fascinations about the intensity of young women and their relationship to power in patriarchal institutions. As such, the ancestry of Level 16 can also be traced back as much to Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock as it can feminist “women in prison” films like Mai Zetterling’s Scrubbers.
With its world premiere at Fantastic Fest in Austin in September, what is so immediately striking about the horrific situation we find Esterhazy’s cast of young women is how thoroughly indoctrinated they are to the strict and often brutal regime they find themselves living within. These girls, we soon discover, know no other way of life, and as they ‘graduate’ from level to level until the final eponymous Level 16, they are motivated by hopes that the years of training (and total denial of sunlight) will pay off as they are adopted by a wealthy family. These dreams of a better life are what keep the girls going.
With friendships and close bonds between the girls actively discouraged, that between Vivien (Katie Douglas) and Sophia (Celina Martin) which triggers the upheaval that radically alters the institutions future is necessarily one that develops covertly, out of sight of both the authorities that have incarcerated them and the other girls, the latter generally paranoid and desperate to snitch if it helps their own situations. With names taken from famous Classical Hollywood movie stars – Rita (Amalia Williamson), Hedy (Kate Vickery), Olivia (Josette Halpert), May (Yasmin Lau), Grace (Sydney Meyer), and Clara (Kiana Madeira) – the only joy the girls find in their lives is a carefully controlled diet of old movies that form a part of their training to be good, clean young women. This dual focus on obedience and hygiene dominate the film and their training regime at the expense of basic literacy and a general education, with any deviations punished.
But the fate of the girls is far bleaker than even this might suggest, and their treatment much crueler than they consciously know. As Vivien and Sophia begin to unfold the mystery of their captivity, Esterhazy’s unflinching critique on the disposability of poor young women at the expense of the wealthy and the terrifying lengths they will go to in maintaining idealized images of female beauty are critiqued through the film’s powerful allegory of a broader, corrupt society.
Perhaps weakened only by an unnecessary cliché of the assumed immorality of Eastern Europe (suggesting, somewhat bewilderingly, that these things could never happen ‘here’, only ‘over there’), Level 16 is a YA film that never patronizes its audience, whatever their age. Its teen characters are complex and convincingly written and performed, and at its heart lies a friendship that has solidified in a context deliberately designed to forbid such relationships forming. Level 16 is an engaging, earnest and thrilling feminist fairy tale that both consciously riffs on earlier films and yet maintains an original vision without becoming clichéd or predictable.