April 29, 2019 Level 16 (Movie Review)
Most children are taught never to question authority. Young girls, especially, are meant to be obedient and pure in order to be worth anything. This in mind, Canadian Filmmaker Danishka Esterhazy (Black Field 2009, Where the Funny Comes From 2011) has taken these ideas to their limits and created Level 16.
Originally hitting select theaters and VOD back on March 1st, and scheduled for a Blu-ray/DVD release Tuesday, April 30th through Dark Sky Films, Level 16 is a mysterious Sci-Fi Thriller starring Vivien (Katie Douglas: Mary Kills People series, Every Day 2018) and Sophia (Celina Martin: The Other Kingdom series, iZombie series), two of many young girls in a dark regimented boarding school.
The Vestalis Academy is a cold strict place that houses girls of varying ages. Obedience and cleanliness are cardinal rules in order to survive the isolated prison-like boarding school. The school is run by the beautiful but harsh Miss Brixil (Sara Canning: Remedy series, A Series of Unfortunate Events series). Their medical and vitamin needs taken care of by the seemingly compassionate Dr. Miro (Peter Outerbridge: Saw VI 2009, Orphan Black series), who is also the disembodied voice giving commands. All students are vigilant in their quest to stay pure and clean in order to get adopted into good families. It is required of them and any deviation of this is met with swift punishment.
Vivien (Douglas) is now the top of the Level 16 girls but was once seen as unclean at a lower level. Vivien chose to help her friend, Sophia (Martin) evade getting in trouble only to be punished herself. Friendships are a useless distraction from their main objective. The girls are separated only to be reunited several levels later. Sophia is happy to see her once friend, but Vivien is cold. This does not deter Sophia from trying to reform their past friendship. Vivien is the only person she trusts. Unlike the other girls, Sophia has silently begun to question the school and the motives of why it exists. She soon convinces Vivien that something is not quite right with their situation and the pair begin to investigate.
If so much effort was put into making the girls believe in their purity and current state and the evils of the outside world, then surely the truth will not come easily or without a fight. Are Vivien and Sophia strong enough, separately-together, to survive breaking through the only reality they have ever known? Will those in authority even allow their lives to continue once the truth comes out?
From the second Level 16 starts, you will immediately feel a heavy sense of dread and foreboding. The Vestalis Academy offers no comfort. The entire dormitory is comprised of varying shades of greys. The girl’s school uniforms are also in the same monochromatic colors. The color scheme is so devoid of life that at times the viewer will question if the film just might be in black and white.
The only hints of brightness inside of the dorm come from Mrs. Brixil’s deep red lipstick. The girls are monitored by a series of cameras mounted throughout the halls. The girls’ living situation is so bleak and regimented that it makes any prison look like a five star resort. It will keep the viewer questioning why none of the girls, minus Sophia and Vivien, ever questioned their lives and how they could be so sure something better outside actually exists.
Since the school setting is so bleak, it really forces the actors to shine. There is no room to rely on the background in this film; otherwise the actor would simply fade away. Like everyone else, everyone wants to believe that the core of their life is not what it appears to be. Douglas carries her Vivien in such a way that the viewer will be right beside her as her eyes begin to open and her world, as she once knew it, starts to turn upside down. Martin’s Sophia is so desperate to reconnect with her ex-friend and open her eyes that the energy sparks from the screen.
Canning’s Miss Brixil is an odd character that carries a mix of cold authority with hints of unease and sadness. She appears to be the one in charge of everything. She is pale, flawlessly beautiful, and on the surface completely perfect. She is what the girls are meant to look up to and aspire to be. Her direct foil is Outerbridge’s Dr. Miro. Yes, when his voice booms over the intercom and the timer begins he is ominous and terrifying, but in person he is charming and likable. He is the only possible comfort in such an uncomfortable place. He appears to be the doctor that every patient would be comfortable seeing as he seems to truly care about the girls and their well being. Both serve to dictate the atmosphere surrounding the school.
Growing up is a series of learning and experiences that will ultimately shape who the person will become. A boarding school seems like the perfect breeding ground to form several intimate bonds and relationships that will last lifetimes. After all, everyone – especially young girls – need that special confidante to get through both good and bad times. Not only are close friendships not encouraged at the Vestalis Academy, they are continuously destroyed by the strict rules and guidelines set in place. That said, Level 16 is a terrifyingly accurate study of how anonymous and faceless a person can become if friendships do not exist.
Level 16 is a film that can be enjoyed on the surface as simply an unnerving Sci-Fi Thriller, but also has many layers the viewer can dive into and peel away which is a hallmark of a truly intellectual film. It is a dark twist on a coming of age story and female empowerment in the middle of a twisted world full of locked doors and cement walls. Mental and emotional growth are not priorities. Without them, the world would be full of unthinking unoriginal people, much like the girls living at the academy. For these reasons, Cryptic Rock gives Level 16, 4 out of 5 stars.