If you’re a fan of feminist dystopia with sinister undertones, you’re in luck. Level 16, directed by Danishka Esterhazy, doesn’t quite reach for the worldwide scope of some of its contemporaries, choosing instead to narrow its focus to an evil boarding academy. The result is a chilling journey through a grey world of social tension, which achieves its at times overstated goal of thriller-inflicted social commentary through successful acting, well-conceived plot twists, and thorough attention to scene.

Level 16 tells the story of Vivien (Katie Douglas) a 16-year-old student at the Vestalis Academy, a dystopian boarding school where girls are raised in prison-like conditions and taught to embody the “feminine virtues” of obedience, cleanliness, patience and humility. When Vivien reaches Level 16—the level supposedly preceding her adoption into a loving family—she reunites with her old friend Sophia (Celina Martin), who raises Vivien’s suspicions that the Academy may not be quite what it seems. Together, they work to uncover a much darker and deeper plot and must navigate their way out of the Academy before it’s too late.

One hardly needs to get past the film’s basic description to infer that it is largely preoccupied with feminism, and with interrogating notions of traditional femininity. In some ways, it does this successfully. One of the tensest threads of the story is Vivien’s relationship with Dr. Miro (Peter Outerbridge), and the ongoing question of whether his sympathy toward her is genuine or merely false and paternalistic. The film is also attentive to the social norms that feed into institutionalized misogyny, like the complicity of women like the villainous Miss Brixil (Sara Canning), the Academy’s authoritarian headmistress.

However, while the film takes care to infuse meaning into its drama, it does lack in some subtlety. A lot of the intrigue lies in what is left unsaid and unshown: that is, what this world and the stratification of its society really look like. The Academy spends all its time extolling feminine virtues and impressing its students with a loyalty to female obedience, but the film also shows us women occupying very different roles in this dystopian society. There’s Miss Brixil, who harshly admonishes the girls for rule-breaking and imposes punishments that easily qualify as torture, yet she tries to claim innocence and ignorance when the girls later confront her. There are the wealthy women who visit the Academy at night with their husbands, with the goal, we later learn, of choosing young girls’ faces to take on as their own. Then, at the end, the injured Vivien and Sophia are rescued from their hiding place by a female police officer.

Clearly the virtues of obedience and feminine passivity, at least in their most strictly enforced form, don’t apply so much to the world outside the Academy. The exact extent of their application or lack thereof is left unclear, along with what the audience is to make of this social commentary, concentrated even within its own realm. Is there a point to this idea of pushing femininity to the extreme, if it’s ultimately only used to the end of harvesting the girls’ faces? One reading suggests that this irony has something valuable to say about the pointlessness of female fetishization; an alternative suggests that the pointlessness is just that, pointless, and that the enforcement of the feminine virtues is just another way to add to the girls’ suffering. Both seem plausible. One of the film’s weak spots is that it doesn’t account for quite enough of either explanation—to say nothing of the explanations for how the world came to be this way, what exactly could possibly be motivating Miss Brixil to sell young girls’ faces, and any number of other technical questions.

Level 16 delivers drawn-out scenes of amped-up tension, and it benefits hugely from the acting abilities of its two young leads, Douglas and Martin. It keeps the viewer guessing, albeit sometimes a little too much, and presents a dreary world where societal shortcomings have allowed the powerful to enact their wishes upon the virtually powerless—in that vague way, not too unlike some of the world today. Its drawbacks arise when would-be nuances take on over-the-top proportions, and the world starts to feel less like an apt representation of important social discussions and more like a strange foray into a landscape of suffering and not-quite-explained hate.

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