GFF19 #13: Level 16 (Canada 2018)

Katie Douglas as Vivien leads the girls on yet another trip between rooms with the same depressing colours

Level 16 is an SF thriller, directed by Danishka Esterhazy. SF/science fiction/horror is one of the strengths of Anglophone Canadian cinema and since I’m keen to see SF and Canadian films, especially by women, it seemed an obvious choice for me to book. What I hadn’t realised was that this screening was at the beginning of the first full day of ‘FrightFest’ as a festival within the main festival. Sitting on the front row (numbered seating instead of the usual unreserved) in a jam-packed GFT1 was a new experience. I’ve never seen so many cinemagoers in black T-shirts together before. This was all generally good fun but the announcements and promos and a short film extended the running time of the slot considerably. When I finally escaped the theatre I discovered that I had 1 minute before my next (2 hours plus) feature. That’s not good!

Danishka Esterhazy directs Celina Martin as ‘Sophia’ on set

Level 16 was preceded by a short video welcome/introduction by Danishka Esterhazy on a recording (she’s currently shooting in Hawaii) and she told us that this was a film inspired to some extent by her own schooling. She must have had a grim time. The film is set in the very near future or alternative present and focuses on a group of teenage girls in a mysterious boarding school. They are never allowed out of their windowless rooms on the grounds that the air/light outside will damage their skin. Each day they are put through rituals of learning about appropriate behaviour for young ladies, but not much conventional academic learning. They wear long concealing dresses and take medication each day (described as vitamins). They are taught via TV screens, old ‘public service’ films and Hollywood classics. Each girl is named after a classic Hollywood beauty and the two central characters are ‘Vivien’ and ‘Sophia’. The only two adults they see most of the time are the tall, glamorous blonde Miss Brixil and the seemingly kindly Dr Miro. But if they are punished, the girls are taken away by black-clad ‘guards’ and put in ‘solitary’. If they are obedient the girls gradually progress to the next ‘level’ and when they reach ‘Level 16’ they believe that prospective adoptive parents/employers are going to select them to live in beautiful homes. These visitors come to see the girls who are presented in a drug-induced sleep. However, it is inevitable that one day a girl is going to rebel and avoid the medication. Once she realises what is happening will she be able to convince the others who, after years of indoctrination and drug regimes are likely to be resistant? Is it possible for the girls to act collectively given their histories?

Miss Brixil (Sarah Canning) addresses the girls of Level 16

The ‘prison break’ or POW escape offers another genre repertoire from which to draw alongside the girls school, horror and SF repertoires, but it means that the pacing and tone of the narrative changes significantly in the final section. Up until the last five  minutes I thought the film worked well but I found the ending rushed and unconvincing. However, the large audience of ‘fright fans’ seemed to be appreciative. Certainly, it is an intelligent film which uses its limited budget effectively. The performances from the four principal actors, all experienced in Canadian TV and film, are very effective. I was intrigued to read about Danishka Esterhazy’s background as a member of the Winnipeg Film Group and her frustration to try to get this film made as set out in an interview on the SYFY Wire website. The long struggle took around ten years with familiar problems in finding funding for this ‘feminist dystopian thriller’ with a whole catalogue of sexist assumptions about what should be in a film like this and how the girls should be presented. In the meantime, Esterhazy made other features that were more attractive to funders, including as she describes it:

a Brontë novel, but set in Canada. Which I thought was like, ‘You think my sci-fi film’s weird, my Canadian Brontë film is really weird!’

That Brontë reference is also an indicator of the kind of research Esterhazy undertook since Level 16 benefits from a study of Victorian etiquette books and ideas about how young women should behave. I think that Level 16 would be an interesting film to show to students, because of the way it confounds that array of assumptions (e.g. teenage girls won’t watch SF, women don’t direct SF, there needs to be a romance etc.). It also offers a useful comparison with more traditional SF films on similar topics such as the two Stepford Wives films and something like Never Let Me Go (UK-US 2010) with its much higher cultural status. The success of The Handmaid’s Tale on TV probably helps as well.

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