Film reviews and more since 2009

Level 16 (2018) review

Dir. Danishka Esterhazy

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★★

Part of me and my girlfriend’s 30-movie Halloween marathon.

If you can let the derivative and slightly questionable plot developments slide, Level 16 manages to be effective dystopian entertainment. Not to mention, with our world in the hellish state that it is, it’s at least more entertaining than turning on the evening news.

Written and directed by Danishka Esterhazy (The Banana Splits Movie), Level 16 is set in a suffocatingly drab all-girl boarding school. The facility is akin to a prison: antiseptic, windowless, and defined by various levels to which its unfortunate female subjects are promoted or demoted. Katie Douglas stars as Vivien, one of the residents, who has just been assigned to Rose Hall on Level 16 of the building. A veteran of the establishment, she asserts herself as soon as she arrives: “Each hall has its top girl and in this hall it’s me.”

Headmaster Brixil (Sara Canning) and the staff physician Dr. Miro (Peter Outerbridge) preach the core principles of cleanliness, obedience, patience, and humility to the girls. Above all else, they’re taught to be “clean girls,” who sidestep anger in favor of passive acceptance. The girls can’t remember life before this so-called “school.” They spend their days on a strictly regimented diet of indoctrination by way of videos and vitamins, with an industrial surveillance system monitoring their every move, assuring compliance.

One of Vivien’s new roommates is Sophia (Celina Martin), her ex-best friend who broke their bond after an incident we see occur early into the film. When they reconnect on Level 16, the outcast Sophia tells Vivien what she has discovered about the school, such as what happens after the girls take their vitamins and retreat to their dorm to sleep at night. Later, Vivien begins to bond with Dr. Miro, who extends his niceties while tending to a peculiar bedsore on her back. “When a girl is obedient and sweet, the world cannot help but love her,” he tells Vivien, reinforcing the school’s principles.

You know where this is going, at least for the most part. Level 16 becomes a jailbreak movie in the back-half of its runtime. Esterhazy’s script is ultra-conservative with its reveals; she is deftly reticent in giving us the full picture and scope of what this school is truly about. Like the best films of its genre, Level 16 locks in on Vivien so much so that it tells the story through her eyes and experiences.

It’s hard not to think of a plethora of other films while watching this one, be it The Island, Lord of the Flies, or The Stanford Prison Experiment, if we’re going to get weird here. Esterhazy takes the common framework of a group of innocent individuals being indoctrinated, with one of them slowly becoming more sentient and recognizing their agency, and installs some modern, feminist themes. If you can look beyond some incredulous instances — such as the school’s confounding security system, which conveniently doesn’t activate in the third act until it’s too late — you’ll at least be rewarded with an ending that answers most major questions.

NOTE: Level 16 is streaming exclusively on Netflix.

Starring: Katie Douglas, Celina Martin, Sara Canning, Peter Outerbridge, and Alexis Whelan. Directed by: Danishka Esterhazy.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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