Level 16’s brilliant narrative strategy makes for an enthralling viewing experience

Level 16’s brilliant narrative strategy makes for an enthralling viewing experience
Canadian writer/director Danishka Esterhazy has called her Handmaid’s Tale-inflected dystopian thriller “Jane Eyre meets Logan’s Run.” It’s the kind of pitch that will have at least two groups of moviegoers ready to ride this elevator to level 16 or wherever else it chooses to take them.

They will not be disappointed. From the opening frames of this smart sci-fi story, we are thrust into the perfectly realized microcosmos of the Vestalis Academy. It’s a strict, Spartan girls’ boarding school where students are taught the “feminine virtues” of obedience, cleanliness, patience and humility – but not, it seems, reading or timekeeping. Buzzers tell them when to attend a televised health lesson, a daily dose of vitamins or a visit from Miss Brixil (Sara Canning), the harsh headmistress.

Katie Douglas stars as Vivien, an assiduous rule-follower ever since a minor infraction years earlier earned her a major (though deliberately hazy) punishment. She’s just moved up to Level 16 – presumably her age – and is reunited with Sophia (Celina Martin), who might have stepped in to help all those years back but did nothing. Clearly, trust is not going to come easily between these two.

By placing viewers squarely in Vivien’s point of view, Esterhazy keeps us as much in the dark as the girls, who are told they must stay inside because of environmental hazards, and that their “cleanliness” will lead to them being adopted by a loving family one day soon.

It doesn’t all quite add up, though the questions do pile up. What’s with the Russian-speaking guards? Why is no one staffing the security desk? Why are all the students – Ava, Rita, Hedy, etc. – named after 1940s Hollywood stars?

And what year is this anyway? We’re primed to expect the far future, but nothing in the science, clothing or language suggests it outright. Shades of Never Let Me Go; the technology is 1990s or earlier, the girls speak in antiquated slang – spiffy, swell, “shut your gobber” – and characters repeat the vague virtues of “a clean girl” until the creepiness will have you clawing at your skin.

It’s a brilliant narrative strategy, because it has the audience making many of the same assumptions as the characters, only some of which will turn out to be right. And rest assured, the truth will eventually be disclosed in a timely and satisfying fashion, with a few revelations that will have your head spinning.

Esterhazy has been toiling in the Canadian film industry for almost two decades. Her debut feature, 2009’s Black Field, was named Best Feature Drama at Vancouver’s Women in Film Festival, and Best Canadian Feature at Toronto’s Female Eye Festival.

Here she makes the most of what must have been a limited budget, with a simple, wonderfully tense score, and a mostly grey colour palette. (The girls are notably all dark-haired save Miss Brixil, a peroxide blonde.) Her set is believably windowless, shot through with a ghastly fluorescent glow. And Douglas is amazing as a young girl testing the limits of her power, and finding that strength begets more strength, especially after she learns something of her namesake.

It’s effective as all get-out, but I’d love to see what Esterhazy could do with more production money. It’s time for this director to level up.

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