Friday 31 May 2019

Level 16 (Canada 2018: Dir Danika Asterhazy)

In Asterhazy's downbeat, austere and time unspecific sci fi drama we are introduced to a group of girls who all live in a confined facility, The Vestalis Academy, composed of a number of different floor levels. The young women follow a strict code of behaviour and activity which governs their every move as they 'graduate' to successive levels under the wary eye of the uptight Miss Brixil (Sara Canning): two of their number, Sophia (Celina Martin) and Viven (Katie Douglas) have, contrary to the rules, formed a friendship which is tested when, occupying level 10, Vivien is punished for helping Sophia and stepping out of line in the nightly washing ritual as a result. The nature of this punishment is not specified but is severe enough to make Vivien colder and more ruthless, hinting at something more sinister behind the seemingly benevolent setup.

Six years later Vivien, now 16, has with a number of others been selected to move to the highest floor of the facility, appropriately level 16 - one for each year of their lives. It is here we learn that the girls will complete their moral devotions and prepare for adoption: for this is an orphanage, and the girls are being trained to take their place as dutiful 'daughters' in wealthy families and, for the first time, venture into the outside world and even 'see the sky.' On Level 16 Sophia and Vivien meet again, and gradually renew their friendship. But Sophia has a message for Vivien that all is not as it seems in the orphanage: it seems that there's a more sinister purpose behind the setup.

Anyone who has read or seen adaptations of either Margaret Atwood's 'The Handmaid's Tale' or Kazuo Ishiguro's 'Never Let Me Go' will probably guess the dark heart of this movie quite early on: and in truth Level 16 is a movie combining elements of both. But that's not to say that within its obviously limited budget it doesn't retain interest. The setting, a grim network of grey rooms and corridors, suggests that Michael Radford's bleak 1984 adaptation of George Orwell's novel of the same name may also have been an influence.

Asterhazy wisely focuses on her cast rather than their dramatically limited surroundings, and there's a stunning central performance from Katie Douglas as Vivien, who moves from self appointed top girl status to a frightened young woman as the extent of the Academy's true purpose becomes known. The rest of the cast are affecting in their buttoned up-ness, their closed rank conformity only betrayed by their frightened eyes; there's a great moment when, on level 16, each of the girls is given a dress with their name written on a sash; Vivien hold hers up and asks "What does it say?" Knowing that the expert tuition of the girls doesn't include learning to read is a chilling moment.

Despite its influences Level 16 emerges as a credible film in its own right. Creepy, occasionally rather lyrical and at times deeply disturbing, it's an assured movie that knows its own limits and works effectively within them. Definitely worth a look.

Level 16 is available on digital platforms from 27th May 2019.

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