In a mysterious prison like school, The Vestalis Academy for girls, Vivien is determined to get through school without any fuzz, after being punished when younger. However, on Level 16, the final level, she meets up with Sophia who’s betrayal caused her punishment. But Sophia has discovered something strange is going on and wants Vivian’s help…
The girls in the school are subjected to a carefully regulated schedule to make them behave in a prim proper way, to look after themselves and in essence just be ‘good girls.’ However, from the beginning it is clear there is something wrong. Voices through speakers tell the girls when to eat, to take their vitamins and via a woman who appears before them, to ensure they show the proper virtues of what is a woman is. But we soon discover that the girls are not taught the basics, such as to read. They all are told they could all be going good homes, but at the same time they aren’t allowed out as they are told that the air is bad for them.
As the story unfolds, revealing its secrets, it also brings to the fore, perhaps an even more important story, that of friendship, especially between Vivien and Sophia. Close friends when younger they were closed, but the fear the school creates causes Sophia not to speak up to help Vivian. As a result Vivien is punished and never really trusts anyone again, but learns, slowly, to do so when Sophia re-enters her life and they begin to unravel the school mysteries. By the film’s end, the bond between them gives the final act real emotional heart.
The answer to the mystery is perhaps the weakest aspect of the film. Once it is revealed, you realise a some of the story falls apart and certain aspects of make no sense.
And yet. Despite the issues with the story, I was quite taken with the film to such a degree, that whatever story issues it has I was prepared to overlook them. I can assure you, if the film wasn’t working for me, I would be shouting loud about its problems.
The film is written and directed by Danishka Esterhazy and while I may have had some issues with aspects of the story, her direction is first rate and while the brief moments of violence are well done, the film is really at its best when dealing with the relationship at the heart of the film, that of Vivien and Sophia.
A large part of that is down to the casting. Katie Douglas play Vivien and is superb and she is matched by Celina Martin as Sophia. Their relationship elevates the film, leading to a truly emotional ending. Among the rest of the mostly female cast, there are good supporting performances from Sara Canning as Miss Brixil the headmistress, Amalia Williamson, Kate Vickery among the girls at the school and in one of the few roles for men in the film, Peter Outerbridge as the Doctor at the school. It really is a refreshing change seeing female actresses having most of the roles and the males having only a few.
The film is a chilling look at what how a society can treat its girls, but also on how the girls can fight back against it. That aspect of the film really worked for me.
Although Level 16 doesn’t do anything truly new, what it does do thanks to some good writing, directing and acting, is turn a chilling tale into one with a lot heart and emotion.
I was very impressed by it and it was one of my favourite films of FrightFest, despite the story issues I had with it.
Certainly worth checking out.
Rating: **** out of 5