[Review] Level 16 is a smart and subversive sci-fi dystopia

Obedience. Cleanliness. Patience. Humility. To not be these four things is to be considered unclean and no one wants that. That’s the path that can lead to hysteria, a condition that is frowned upon in polite society. The four virtues that every woman must possess to be valued, according to the scripture taught over and over to the girls of Vestalis Academy. Vestalis is about making women out of little girls, in hopes they will be selected and adopted into the most perfect family. But in order to do that, they must follow some very specific instructions and never act out. Anger is a vice, obviously. So please be obedient.

As a character says to one of the girls of Vestalis Academy: “When a girl is obedient and sweet, the world can’t help but love her.”

Vestalis doesn’t look like your typical school. It resembles a scientific bunker in some distant future. Steel and sterile. This makes sense, to a degree, since the air outside is said to be toxic. Cameras are placed in the ceilings and the walls to monitor the young students as they grow up through a level system, with the ultimate goal of graduating at Level 16, where they will be adopted by a family. In an intense cold open, one of the young girls in Level 10 named Sophia drops her container. She doesn’t have very good vision and when she frantically can’t find it, another young girl named Vivien rushes out of line to help her.

But it’s her turn to take vitamins in front of a camera and when she doesn’t show, alarms blare and lights start to flash. “I’m here!” Vivien screams as she rushes to the camera. But it’s too late. Armed men who look like Russian thugs in an 80s action movie enter and drag her away to be “punished.” Sophia puts her head against the wall and doesn’t intercede. She lets Vivien get carted away for trying to help her. Meanwhile, Vivien shouts, “I’m clean! I’m clean!” as she’s dragged away.

We are reintroduced to Vivien (Katie Douglas) as she’s about to graduate from Level 15 and join the final level/year of the Academy: the fateful Level 16. The girls of this floor are happy to finally be reaching the end of their studies and gratefully join the other girls of Level 16. And this is where Vivien sees Sophia (Celina Martin) again. The years have hardened Vivien, who doesn’t stick her neck out for anyone anymore. And when Sophia tries to reconnect, Vivien stops her dead with her coldness.

The students’ daily routines seem curious and boring. They wake up, clean themselves, eat, watch instructional programs of the virtues they must possess, sometimes watch a real movie, clean up after themselves and then take a vitamin before going back to bed. But Level 16 comes with some changes, as Miss Brixil (Sara Canning), the only other woman they know, tells them. It comes with a virginal white gown that looks almost like a cross between a wedding dress and a nightgown. And a different colored vitamin.

If the whole setup doesn’t give you a sense of unease or send up red flags, the fact that each dress has a sash with each girl’s name embroidered in them definitely should. Particularly when it comes to light that they can’t read their own names. Yes, these girls do not know how to read. They are docile and obedient. Their heads bowed whenever Miss Brixil or the sunglasses-wearing Russian henchmen talks to them.

But Sophia seems to know something is up and one day she tells Vivien not to take the vitamins. Against her better judgment, she pretends to take it and then spits it out in the restroom afterwards. And then she starts to see the truth about her predicament. She realizes she must escape because things just aren’t right here in the Vestalis Academy.

The Academy is presumably named after the Vestal Virgins, a group of priestesses in ancient Rome who were responsible for cultivating a sacred fire so that it wouldn’t go out. The Vestals took a 30-year vow of chastity and devoted themselves to state rituals and wore gowns that emphasized the Roman principle of sexual propriety and denoted the essence of purity. Much like the students of Vestalis, the Vestal Virgins were overseen by a chief Vestal (Vestalis Maxima) and they were punished for dereliction of duties by scourging or beating, in the dark (to preserve their modesty).

The fact that the Academy seems based on a lot of these principles is pretty circumspect today. It feels like a society built upon the same foundations as those in The Handmaid’s Tale, an obvious inspiration to the story. Level 16 examines these themes, particularly putting focus on how society perceives girls and young women and how “they are supposed to act” in the world and in so-called polite society.

The four “virtues” of obedience, cleanliness, patience and humility is continually beaten into their heads through the programs they watch and reinforced not only through Miss Brixil, but a male that’s only heard through the cameras. The idea is to keep them docile, obviously, but for what purpose?

It’s here that writer/director Danishka Esterhazy’s narrative establishes itself as more than the next Hunger Games-level Young Adult story. What begins as an almost typical YA narrative takes a turn into some truly pitch black directions. And while all of these themes are obviously important, Danishka wisely keeps the focus plainly on the two leads, Vivien and Sophia. Their friendship is at the heart of the story and it never wavers from their plight, which is brought to life perfectly by the two actors.

Katie Douglas imbues her character with the perfect amount of docility that’s countered with an increasing sense of unease. One of her standout moments is actually a very brief moment of indecision when she decides to stop taking the vitamins. The reluctance is obvious in Katie’s face but, after she tosses the pill and flushes it, she chokes out a cry, her hands moving to her mouth. The fear immediately blankets her face as her expressions wordlessly asks, “what did I just do?” It’s a small, brief moment but it was powerful.

Meanwhile, Sara Canning’s Miss Brixil is the perfect embodiment of a stern headmaster in front of the girls. But in a couple moments outside of class, when she’s alone, you can see the emotional fragility of what she’s been tasked to do. It weighs on her.

Level 16 really surprised me. It created an entire world in what amounts to a one-location thriller. And even though the themes and metaphors it explores are incredibly important and powerful, it never loses track of the human drama. And it’s carried by some fantastic acting. I’d definitely recommend giving it a shot, particularly for fans of YA stories that might be looking for something a bit more adult in theme.

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