Prepubescent Vivien (Sarah DaSilva) and Sophia (Lori Phun) reside on Level 10 of an authoritarian boarding school for girls, and dream of being chosen for adoption by a good family and seeing the sky for their first time. While helping Sophia pick up the jar of facial cream that she has dropped, Vivien commits a minor infraction of the school’s strict skincare regime, and is taken downstairs by the guards for punishment. Years later, 16-year-old Vivien (Katie Douglas) advances to Rose Hall on Level 16 – for what the platinum blonde instructress Miss Brixil (Sara Canning) says will be the ‘final year at Vestalis’. There she is reunited with Sophia (Celina Martin) and, once they have overcome their initial misgivings about each other, the two young women are about to defy the authority of Miss Brixil, Dr William Miro (Peter Outerbridge) and the academy’s guards, to stop drinking the Kool-Aid (or at least the vitamins prescribed by Dr Miro) and to seek a means to escape, even if they have always been told that the world outside is dangerous and plague-ridden.
Drawing on the disturbing hermetic worlds of Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Innocence, Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go and The Handmaid’s Tale, Danishka Esterhazy’s Level 16 places us in a supposedly educational environment that is rearing meek, docile illiterates for a purpose that will only gradually become clear. This is told almost entirely from the girls’ point of view, with Sophia’s myopia standing in for the constrained, blinkered perspective of all the school’s pupils – although, ironically enough, Sophia sees more than any of them. Unworldly and ill-informed, the girls are unaware that all their names – Rita, Hedy, Ava, Veronica, Olivia, Clara, Grace – derive from the classic beauties of cinema’s Golden Age, even if, when they are not watching staticky old instructional videos on good grooming and the ‘feminine virtues’, their only viewing is repeat screenings of old films on ‘Moving Picture Night.’ As they recite every line of the movies that they have seen countless times, they are adopting, appropriating and inhabiting the iconic parts of others, in what is an oblique reflection of the film’s hidden premise.
Level 16 is a strange coming-of-age tale – strange because it is peopled with sleepy teenagers who, for the most part, show no inclination to rebel or to express any adolescent resistance. Only Vivien and Sophia, in growing up, come to open their eyes and to question their institutionalised lives. The film also comes heavily gendered. The very name of the school, Vestalis, is suggestive of Ancient Rome’s virginal religious college, while the young women who make up its student body are expected to conform to some very narrow, indeed arbitrary, definitions of femininity, brainwashed into them from an early age and focused mainly on obedience, hygiene and the repression of feelings. While in the end a very clear, concrete solution will be given to the film’s various mysteries, it is hardly a stretch also to see in the film a parable of male domination as a closed system. For here the decaying structure of Vestalis academy is a prison-house of patriarchy, and before any of its abused, exploited inmates can escape to see the light, they must first acknowledge the bonds and bars that keep them in their place. All the more unsettling for not being set in some reassuringly distanced dystopia, Esterhazy’s film gets right under the skin.
Level 16 was seen and reviewed at FrightFest Glasgow 2019.