★★★ out of ★★★★★
While not super original, it’s a well told variation of a story we’ve seen before.
Directed by Danishka Esterhazy
Level 16 (2018) popped onto my radar because of a recommendation. When I started looking into it and discovered it was written and directed by the same woman who recently directed The Banana Splits Movie (2019) I had to check it out. Anyone who can add a body count to a psychedelic children’s TV show from the late 60s is someone worth getting to know better.
Level 16 follows a young girl named Vivien [Katie Douglas; TV’s Mary Kills People (2017-2019)] as she lives her life at the Vestalis Academy. Part orphanage, part charm school, the (strangely windowless) Academy houses Vivien along with many other similarly aged young women and teaches them to be obedient, clean, obedient, pretty, and obedient. How better to fit in with the high society families that will soon be adopting them?
Once Vivien reconnects with her estranged friend, Sophia [Celina Martin; The Banana Splits Movie (2019)], she discovers that the Vestalis Academy may not be the highly regimented eastern European finder of forever-families she once thought it was.
Okay, sure, the story isn’t new. Along the same lines as The Clonus Horror (1979) or The Island (2005) with an aftertaste reminiscent of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale (2017-) this is about as derivative as it comes. If the story’s good, though, and the performances are (mostly) well done, who cares about derivative? As Kurt Cobain famously said, “entertain us!”
And entertain it does. Taking a page from the Blumhouse playbook, Level 16 stays within its minimal budget by using and reusing the same sets. This minimalist approach fits right in with the fraying around the edges, prison-esque atmosphere Esterhazy was going for and gives the whole production a claustrophobic, oppressive feel.
While all of the supporting characters — especially Miss Brixil [Sara Canning; The Banana Splits Movie (2019)] and Dr. Miro [Peter Outerbridge; TV’s The Umbrella Academy (2019)] — do a decent job being either gaslighty and manipulative or compliant and easily startled, there’s a reason the leads are the leads.
Katie Douglas does a great job portraying earnest but hoodwinked Vivien. The audience learns about the horrors of the Vestalis Academy right alongside her and she holds up well under the weight of the revelations. However, it’s young Celina Martin as Sophia who steals every scene she’s in as Vivien’s long lost BFF. Here’s hoping she decides she enjoys the horror genre as she’s got the emotion and strength of a Final Girl written all over her.
With a familiar story and a satisfying wrap-up Level 16 is an easy watch that moves right along. Action sequences are few and far between due to its more investigative bent, which helps bring the relationships between the characters to the forefront. That’s where the movie thrives. Friendship, loyalty, bravery, and empathy share the spotlight equally in Level 16 making for an enjoyable, if simplistic, movie watching experience.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go wash my face.
Review by Robert Zilbauer.