Danishka Esterhazy’s Level 16 follows the story of Vivien (Katie Douglas), Sophia (Celina Martin), and the other girls of Vestalis Academy as they work toward their dream of adoption into the perfect home. The girls are to follow the key virtues of the Academy: obedience, cleanliness, patience, and humility. Those who don’t follow these rules are found to be unclean, and are severely punished. After experiencing that punishment first-hand back on Level 10, young Vivien follows these virtues to the letter knowing that one day she’ll find her home.
Red flags start to pop up after the girls graduate to the Academy’s prestigious Level 16. We learn that though they seem educated enough, none of them know how to read. The girls are told to take vitamins nightly, which we discover are putting them in a deep sleep after Sophia warns Vivien to stop taking them. The girls will have to work together to find out what’s going on in the secretive academy and save their fellow orphans before the stakes get too high.
Level 16 looks at what society expects of its perfect little girls and amplifies it to help illustrate just how toxic those expectations are. These social and cultural demands are perfectly woven into Esterhazy’s thriller, combining current reality and a dark future with ease. The plot is pitch-perfect, complimented further by each member of the cast’s performance. Sara Canning deserves a special mention for bringing the feared and respected Miss Brixil to life, shifting her demeanor from fierce to fearful at the close of a door.
Though the backdrops of Level 16 are mostly bland, concrete walls, there’s stunning contrast everywhere you look. Miss Brixil is dressed as the polar opposite of the girls in all black and a killer red-lip. Each child is a picturesque beauty thrown into Vestalis’ weird dystopia (which actually serves a plot purpose). All of these contrasts come into play as the stark differences between reality and the world that’s been created for these girls starts to unfold.
Vivien and Sophia’s story concludes with satisfying defiance, giving a rewarding finish to what was one of Fantastic Fest’s best films, and putting the power back in the hands of the girls. Don’t sleep on this one!