July 21, 2019

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Actors add dimension to dystopian sci-fi

Despite limited funds, Winnipeg-raised filmmaker's work delivers solid genre thrills

Level 16, written and directed by Danishka Esterhazy, stars Sara Canning (right) as headmistress of a grim girls' academy and was filmost entirely on a single interior set. (Raven Banner photos)

Level 16, written and directed by Danishka Esterhazy, stars Sara Canning (right) as headmistress of a grim girls' academy and was filmost entirely on a single interior set. (Raven Banner photos)

You can have it cheap, fast or good. Pick two.

That’s the operating principle behind making movies, genre movies in particular. Lack of money doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t pull off a decent movie, given a reasonable amount of time to put it together.

That, perhaps, is why Danishka Esterhazy’s low-budget third feature, Level 16, is as impressive as it is. The Winnipeg-raised filmmaker had many years to work on the script because production companies were loath to commit to a feminine-centred work of dystopian science fiction (before the Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale proved it could and should be done). It just gave time for Esterhazy to craft a taut script that slowly and inexorably tightens its screws.

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You can have it cheap, fast or good. Pick two.

That’s the operating principle behind making movies, genre movies in particular. Lack of money doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t pull off a decent movie, given a reasonable amount of time to put it together.

That, perhaps, is why Danishka Esterhazy’s low-budget third feature, Level 16, is as impressive as it is. The Winnipeg-raised filmmaker had many years to work on the script because production companies were loath to commit to a feminine-centred work of dystopian science fiction (before the Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale proved it could and should be done). It just gave time for Esterhazy to craft a taut script that slowly and inexorably tightens its screws.

Level 16 is set in a grim institution called the Vestalis Academy, presumably a reference to the Vestal Virgins, priestesses of Vesta, homely goddess of the hearth.

The academy appears mainly to be in the business of religious indoctrination. The girls, dressed in drab uniforms, get daily instruction in the virtues of utter passivity: "A sweet girl is always humble and patient"; "a clean girl embodies sweetness."

Suspiciously, each of the residents seems to be named for a female movie star of old: Veronica, Olivia, Rita, Hedy. Vivien (Katie Douglas) was once best friends with near-sighted Sophia (Celina Martin) until an incident in which Vivien was punished for standing up for her friend.

After a few years of separation, they are reunited upon reaching Level 16, which supposedly will see them graduating and being adopted by a loving family appreciative of the sweetness of a Vestalis grad. That’s the story, anyway.

The academy appears mainly to be in the business of religious indoctrination.

The academy appears mainly to be in the business of religious indoctrination.

But in the intervening years, Sophia has wised up to the sinister nature of the academy, despite the relentless indoctrination of their domineering headmistress, Miss Brixel (Sara Canning, also seen in Esterhazy’s Black Field).

When Vivien takes Sophia’s advice and surreptitiously disposes of her daily dose of "vitamins," she stays conscious enough to realize the supposedly altruistic mission of the Vestalis Academy is in fact quite fiendish, notwithstanding the charitable claims of the male administrator Dr. Miro (Peter Outerbridge).

Like other Canuck genre offerings, notably Vincenzo Natali’s 1997 thriller Cube, the film could be brought in on a lower budget because it’s almost entirely filmed on a single interior set. Level 16 has the added advantage of not boasting Cube’s high-tech trappings.

It’s potentially off-putting that the film is stuck in this drab institution for its entirety; imagine for a moment if Jane Eyre never left the orphanage. Esterhazy overcomes that particular issue with a solid central performance by Douglas, who seethes most satisfactorily. Canning, too, adds a bit of unexpected dimension to a character who might otherwise fall into the clichés of the prison matron.

While Level 16 may lack the prestige of a Margaret Atwood adaptation such as The Handmaid’s Tale, it warrants equal consideration as a work of formidable feminist fury. On a budget.

Vestalis Academy is in fact quite fiendish, notwithstanding the charitable claims of the male administrator Dr. Miro (Peter Outerbridge).

Vestalis Academy is in fact quite fiendish, notwithstanding the charitable claims of the male administrator Dr. Miro (Peter Outerbridge).

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @FreepKing

Randall King

Randall King
Reporter

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

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