LEVEL 16 *** Canada 2018 Dir: Danishka Esterhazy. 102 mins
Writer-director Danishka Esterhazy is destined for some level of cultdom due to her BANANA SPLITS horror movie, but this earlier credit is an understated, chilly sci-fi spin on familiar genre themes: class division and the extremities of the 21st century obsession with physical perfection. At a regimented boarding school for teenage girls, everyone is named after famous old movie stars and are in receipt of regular “vitamins” to protect from the unclean air outside. Virtuous behaviour is rewarded, while curiosity and sentimentality are considered vices. Level 16 is the culmination of their lifelong indoctrination: the girls await the arrival of “sponsors” – top-society couples seeking the perfect daughter to adopt. A compelling allegory of institutionalised abuse and the enduring oppression of young women, LEVEL 16 captures the daily routines of this group of deluded, docile characters in an appropriately detached fashion. Reduced to commodities for the fulfilment of the story’s emotionless representatives of high society, the girls represent a microcosm of the poor – surrendered by financially ill-equipped families and (at best) sold into another form of slavery if they are “lucky” enough to be chosen. The ultimate reveal is suitably unpleasant though it makes you wonder what Cronenberg would have done with the same material (he presumably would not have offered such an optimistic final outcome). Dramatically it verges on inert at times, but it’s involving and intelligent – with an excellent cast including Peter Outerbridge as a seemingly solitary sympathetic figure of adult authority.
Review by Steven West