“A clean girl is always attentive and dutiful. A clean girl embraces obedience. A clean girl is always humble and patient. A clean girl embodies sweetness. A clean girl is always temperate. A clean girl is honest and forthcoming. A clean girl gives the school loyalty.”
… and is thrifty, healthy, and wise. Watching the beginning of Level 16 reminded me a little bit of that Boy Scout Oath we used to stand and deliver in the gymnasium of Saint Margaret’s when I was a young teenager. There are also several aspects of the film that reminded me a little of the disciplined regiment at Saint Margaret’s Elementary School. But there’s something more sinister afoot at Vestelis Orphanage than a few sadistic nuns packing yardsticks or a scout leader who smelled of stogies.
Dystopian landscapes have populated themselves throughout our film and television landscape. Perhaps it reflects a lack of confidence in our future on this little blue ball. Whatever the reason, they are popular, and franchises have been built on the concept with grand production designs and global adventures of heroism and romance. Writer/Director Danishka Esterhazy has taken the concept and scaled it back considerably and created a more Orwellian place where young girls spend their lives in a claustrophobic Petri dish under the thumb of a staff with more common motivations than the setting and story might suggest. The girls are orphans, and they spend their lives in levels that appear to correspond loosely with their ages. When the finally enter Level 16, they are being prepared to finally meet their future families from among society’s finest and graduate into eternal bliss. It’s the payoff for living severely controlled lives where they are under constant supervision and strict codes of conduct that emphasize cleanliness and obedience.
On the surface the film appears to be training these girls for a world outside (which we do not see) that holds women in rather low social standing. We discover that they are not taught to read or any other formal kind of education. It’s obvious they are being prepared for something out of Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale. When you consider the popularity of the recent series, it’s apparently a popular theme. But when two of the girls stop taking their “vitamins”, they become aware of what is actually happening at the school, and it soon becomes more of a struggle for survival.
For the majority of the film, we spend a lot of time with these girls. They live in a drab and colorless world, wearing grey uniforms that robs each of any pretense toward individuality, a trait discouraged at Vestelis. In spite of the strict regimen, the girls do bond somewhat, and that becomes particularly true of Vivian, played by Katie Douglas, and Sophia, played by Celina Martin. We don’t really get to see many adults at the facility. The matron is a Miss Brixil, played by Sara Canning, who dresses in black and wears a ton of makeup. Her stiff walk and stern demeanor is intended as somewhat of a model for the girls as much as her authoritive nature is certainly not. There is also Dr. Miro, played by Peter Outerbridge, who ends up feeling somewhat protective of Vivian as the two begin to obviously manipulate each other. The only other “staff” we encounter are a couple of guards who appear to only speak Russian.
There are clues scattered throughout the film that slowly lead us to the big reveal that is not as shocking as it should be. The problem is that the film’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. Esterhazy’s story is somewhat of a slow burn, and it is often to the movie’s advantage. She does a rather masterful job of teasing us with her focus on these girls, and we see this world almost exclusively through their eyes. There is but a single scene where she breaks that style for an unnecessary scene between Miss Brixil and Dr. Miro. The result is a scene totally out of place, and from that point on the film’s slow pace becomes a liability. When Esterhazy breaks her “trust” with the audience, it appears she is, from that moment, merely dragging out the big reveal to the point where she’s lost the shock value she worked so hard for so long to deliver.
The film’s production design turns the disadvantage of a low budget into a huge asset. The drab and colorless facility is a wonderfully designed backdrop for her story. She delivers that dystopian world without the need for f/x or elaborate sets. You can almost see the confining and depressing confines begin to have an affect on the actresses who play these girls. I suspect it helped create the bond and chemistry that drives the narrative here. I suspect less actual acting was required, and it was a brilliant move.
Level 16 is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 30-35 mbps. There’s not really much color here, and that is completely intended. The facility presents a mostly monochromatic environment that is broken by only a few small elements for contrast. Miss Brixil’s red lipstick is the one bright moment of color in the entire landscape. The film is also shot with cool color temperatures that give it a decidedly blue tint throughout. Black levels are not really present, as even in the darkness there is this harsh blue pall that is intended as part of the atmosphere of the piece. So there are no inky blacks, and there isn’t much shadow definition, but that is not a flaw in the transfer or presentation, but a deliberate part of the image presentation. The use of a pale pancake on the faces of the actors only serves to extend the monochromatic feel of the movie.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is not going to blow your doors off. It’s an intimate film, and the audio presentation is there strictly to serve the dialog. The score is quite sparse, and my subs took the night off. Most of this is completely expected and works toward the overall atmosphere of the film. But there are a couple of gunshot moments that are incredibly bad audio design. They sound exactly like pop guns. It’s as if money ran out and there was no Foley work at all. I suspect I’m hearing sound directly from the set, and it’s a little disappointing.
Making Of… :(5:02) The cast and crew are pretty much telling us about the film’s characters and the social message of the movie.
Interviews: There are 10 with an average of 10 minutes each. The cast and crew individually answer questions provided by a title card for us to see. The exception to the duration is that the director/writer gets a half hour.
The film’s ending is a disappointment. The writer/director forgot her feminine virtue of patience, and it undermines what remains. From that point there appear to be two films, and I was quite fond of the first. The ending is abrupt and doesn’t really pay off the courage of the two women at the center of it all. It’s as if everyone was just going through the motions once the big secret was out. I think everyone lost interest, and frankly, so did I. My recommendation to our tour guide here is to “spend your time here reflecting on the feminine virtues”.