I had seen Level 16 popping up on my Netflix suggestions, but unfortunately, it never beat the other billion or so movies I plan to watch, until last week. If you could level any criticisms at Level 16, you could not discard the acting, which was phenomenal. Considering the cast is predominantly filled with young actresses who are fairly new to the movie world, that is high praise but ultimately very deserved.
Level 16 is set in a boarding school, that is more rigorous than the typical fare. We first start with Vivien and Sophia, who are friends. One morning, Vivien risks helping Sophia but in doing so does not follow the virtues of obedience, cleanliness, patience, and humility. Those who do not obey are found to be unclean and are punished. Pleading for leniency and calling out to Sophia to help her, Vivien is dragged away by the guards. Sophia ignores her cries, standing with her head down and silently crying.
Years pass where they have not had contact. But one day Vivien is moved up to Level 16, the level before they are meant to leave this school. Wanting to not make waves, she has followed the rules with precision since her last punishment. But after bumping into Sophia again, her world is turned upside down, when Sophia reveals nefarious secrets about this school that says they only want the best for them.
From this opening scene in Level 16, you are under no illusions that something is very wrong with this boarding school. It goes beyond just strict, with the children following a set routine each day and never seeing the open sky. The school is almost prison-like, with grey permeating everything. The walls are grey, the clothes are grey – they even watch black and white films. There is a ghastly absence of colour with even the adults dressing in black or white throughout the whole film. In fact, the only colour we do see is of Miss Brixil who sports red lipstick, adding the only contrast in the whole film. This, however, really hammers down the oppressive reality of the children/teenagers, without being overly overt in tone.
Even though this is a dystopian nightmare for the children, it is the friendship that builds and grows in strength between Vivien and Sophia that is the core of Level 16. In a totalitarian school that has done everything it can to discourage or outright shut down friendships, they have managed to build a connection. As stated previously, this is not without its bumps, as Vivien feels betrayed by her friend, so she is not first willing to believe the tales that Sophia is telling her. However even though Vivien has been strait-laced until now, she has seen first-hand the cruelty of the school and what it is capable of.
In an atmosphere that rewards snitching on your fellow students, seeing the journey of friends estranged and feeling betrayed by one another, to grow towards compassionate friendship not only towards each other but also their classmates who would not at first instance give them the same compassion is heart-warming to watch. There is a lot of films that deal with male bonding and friendship but we don’t often see the female side of friendship in movies, especially not in a dystopian world.
As I stated in the opening paragraph, the actresses in this are absolutely outstanding in their performances. Vivien who is played by Katie Douglas is probably the standout performance in this. She manages to display a ferocious harshness that is aptly balanced with softness and yearning in the private moments. Douglas who is the main character in Level 16, manages to show this often without dialogue, with just simple facial expressions that show the conflicting emotions of opposite realities colliding.
But what makes Level 16 so wonderful to watch even with its depressing subject matter is all the performances are top-notch, even if they have little screen time. Sophia played by Celina Martin delivers a very raw portrayal of a character consumed by guilt but also by fear. Even Miss Brixil played by Sara Canning who is one of the villains in this saga manages to portray a terrifying character but also a perhaps unwilling collaborator. When you first see her, she is utterly terrifying in her role as the girls’ instructor, with her leather pencil skirt and red-painted lips, shouting at the kids for daring to look at her. But that steel veneer is later shattered in the private moments in her chamber.
This shows the deftness and skill by which Danishka Esterhazy crafts the world and the characters. Dystopias often ruled by black and white rules, manages to craft a world that allows you to connect with the characters. Even if at first glance, each individual seems set in their roles, Esterhazy writes nuance and complexity in all the characters, even the villains.
Level 16 is a fascinating story of friendship set to fail against the harsh reality of an overbearing and totalitarian school run like a dictatorship. When all hell breaks loose, the issues of trust and compassion are put to the test in these young adults, who know nothing beyond the confines of their utterly grey depressing school.
Level 16 is now streaming on Netflix.