Film: Level 16

While far from earth-shatteringly original, Level 16 (2018) is a well-constructed feminist dystopia that deftly wields its limited budget and claustrophobic set to menacing, absorbing effect. The story takes place at “the Academy,” which comes across like a strict, regimented orphanage and boarding school for wayward girls. But something more sinister is afoot, and the truth starts to come out when Vivien (Katie Douglas) graduates to Level 16, the last training stage before adoption. Vivien, punished as a child due to earlier nonconforming behavior, has become something of a true believer in the Academy’s gaslighting about feminine vice and virtue, and is determined to follow the rules to win advantageous family placement upon graduation. But her reunion with a classmate from Level 10 named Sophia (Celina Martin) pierces her obedient bubble, helping uncover the unnerving truths that underlie the stultifying conditions of their “education.”

Level 16′s overall plot will not surprise seasoned science fiction fans, but there’s a compelling atmosphere to its slow-burning mystery. The bleak subterranean feel of the Academy, limned in dim, institutional blues and greens, generates a subtle disquiet as the girls—named after classic Hollywood actresses and reared in a stew of outmoded ideological propaganda—struggle against the restrictions of their fishbowl existence. The science fictional world-building may not be particularly deep, but it’s sold with conviction and internally consistent. The message is simple but effective, dark trappings infused with hope. And the cast, including Martin, Sara Canning, Peter Outerbridge, Alexis Whelan, and of course Douglas (who looks like a star in the making, here) does a fine job bringing this dark, oppressive world to life. A modest but worthy and effective little film.

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