Feminist-driven dystopian thriller ‘Level 16’ screens at VIFF

Feminist-driven dystopian thriller ‘Level 16’ screens at VIFF

Like other potent dystopian thrillers, Level 16 seems to hold up a mirror to the zeitgeist and reflect back the ugliness of the moment: the never-ending war over women’s bodies; ageism; misogyny; the exploitation of the poor; the notion that teen girls should temper their ambitions, smile through pain and rage, and never, ever rock the status quo.

There are moments in Level 16 ­– which premiered last week to rave reviews at Austin’s Fantastic Fest, and screens next week at the 2018 Vancouver International Film Festival – that feel like they’ve been ripped from the headlines. It’s as if writer-director Danishka Esterhazy drew inspiration from #MeToo, #TimesUp, Trump, the Kavanagh hearings, and the philosophical and socio-political battles of the age to produce one of the most chilling and relevant dystopian thrillers of 2018.

Except that Esterhazy wasn’t mining this particular historic moment. The Canadian filmmaker has been working on Level 16 for more than a decade.

Level 16 follows a group of teen girls who live a very controlled existence in what they believe is an academy for young women who will be adopted by well-to-do families. They don’t go outside, ever. They take vitamins, play checkers, eat bland food, wash their faces, and strive to embody the feminine virtues they learn from Ms. Brixil (who is portrayed with stunning nuance by Vancouver actress Sara Canning): obedience; cleanliness; purity; sweetness. Adherence to the rules means graduating to the next level, and ultimately being adopted by a loving family. Everything runs like finely tuned Orwellian clockwork, until a couple of girls at the final level – Level 16 – get dangerously curious… 

Level 16 was supposed to be Esterhazy’s first feature – and it would have been, had it not been for the gatekeepers who didn’t believe the film could ever find an audience.

“We could not get it funded,” says Esterhazy. “When we were first going into rooms and pitching this 10 years ago, we were constantly told that the film would have no market, that nobody wanted to see science fiction about young women, that women didn’t go to science fiction, that it would have no appeal, it would be too strange a concept. I never believed that. I thought that was ridiculous, but that’s what the distributors told us. I think it was ahead of its time and people were just not ready.”

Then the entertainment landscape started to change: The Hunger Games and other teen-driven dystopian films won big at the box office. The Handmaid’s Tale proved that audiences would welcome the opportunity to explore a dystopian world built on gender constructs. And while 2009’s historical drama Black Field ended up being Esterhazy’s first feature (and similarly starred Canning), Esterhazy never gave up on Level 16.

“We had to wait for the world to be ready for this story,” says Esterhazy.

And here we are: days away from Level 16’s Canadian premiere.

If Level 16 feels timely, it’s because the pulled-from-the-headlines issues that it addresses – including misogyny, sexism, violence against women, and ageism – have always been there, says Canning.

“It’s so timely and it’s always been timely,” says Canning. “It’s always been timely, and we’re finally seeing these timely stories on screen that have been timely for women for eons.”

In this mind-numbingly terrifying era, a thriller like Level 16 has the power to shake us out of complacency, says its filmmaker.  

“We need our thrillers,” says Esterhazy. “We need to be scared. We’re lobsters in the boiling water and I think we get too comfortable with everything that’s going on.”

Katie Douglas plays one of the brave young women who question the status quo in  Level 16 .

Katie Douglas plays one of the brave young women who question the status quo in Level 16.

Esterhazy is admittedly scared, and she explores these fears in Level 16, which was shot over 20 days in Toronto. “I’m terrified by our society’s obsession with vanity, youth, and perfection, and the demands we’re putting on young women to fit into these roles which are impossible to achieve and lead to great personal misery, and I really want to talk about that, and I want to shine a light on that,” she says. 

Esterhazy is equally concerned about another real-world issue that pops up in Level 16: the exploitation of the very poor by the very rich.

“The great thing about dystopia and science fiction is you can shine a light on those topics but it’s easy to look at those topics when you put them into a creative universe,” says Esterhazy. “It allows conversation to start in a way that’s more engaging.

For Canning, Ms. Brixil represented a new frontier of character: the menacing villain.

“As a staunch feminist, that was a really interesting thing to play, because as Danishka said at one of the Q&As at Fantastic Fest, ‘Fuck obedience,’ and I’m very much aligned with that, and it’s challenging to play a character who’s telling these young women to be obedient,” says Canning. “I think she’s pretty haunted by what she’s doing. The big challenge was to play this villainous presence and very bizarre, archaic female enforcer, but to also feel like what is inherently inside all women about what we’ve had to bend to for all of time and to just layer that in – but still do the awful things she’s doing.” 

Of course, Canning knocks it out of the park, just like Esterhazy knew she would. “Sara digs into a script on such a deep level,” marvels Esterhazy. “I knew this from Black Field. When I was rewriting this film over the 10 years, I always had Sara in mind for this role, and I knew what she could do. I knew I could give this character a lot of layers and a lot of depth because Sara would be able to play all of those notes.”

Level 16 played to packed houses at Fantastic Fest. The experience was validating for cast and crew in attendance. “I always felt this film was going to touch people, but there were a lot of naysayers over the years who didn’t share my enthusiasm, so to finally get to an audience and to hear how much they love the film, it’s very vindicating,” says Esterhazy.

Level 16 screens September 30 and October 7 at the 2018 Vancouver International Film Festival. Find tickets and schedule information at VIFF.org.

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