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Reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale, indie thriller Level 16 will keep you guessing.
Set in a disturbingly strict boarding school, the main characters are teenage girls being trained for flawless humility and obedience. They’re told the outside world is a toxic wasteland and they’re being raised for adoption by wealthy families, but there’s clearly something weirder afoot. Why do these families want to adopt fully “trained” but illiterate 16-year-olds instead of younger kids? Is the school secretly an elaborate sex-trafficking operation? Is there something supernatural going on? What’s the outside world actually like? We discover the truth eventually, but this story is more about the slow burn than the shocking twist.
DIRECTOR: Danishka Esterhazye
Echoing the oppressive atmosphere of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ ‘Level 16’ is a tense sci-fi thriller set in a dystopian boarding school for girls.
Our two leads are Vivien (Katie Douglas) and Sophia (Celina Martin), who each develop different approaches to their restrictive lifestyle. After earning a painful punishment as a child, Vivien strives to be the perfect pupil, living up to the school’s exacting standards of feminine virtue. Sophia, who has a serious visual impairment, is more of an outcast.
The two girls had a serious falling-out as children, but they reconnect when they’re put in the same class for Level 16, the final year of their education. Guided by a cruel headmistress (Sarah Canning) and a suspiciously avuncular doctor (Peter Outerbridge) who doses them with unnamed drugs, they’re taught to be passive and powerless. Their lives are dominated by an exaggerated version of the restrictions that girls face in real life: a constant pressure to be modest, feminine, and spiritually and physically “clean.”
Level 16 feels like a YA novel adaptation, retaining the darker themes that often get toned down for Hollywood teen movies. Written and directed by Danishka Esterhazy, it’s a mix of sci-fi and psychological horror, exploring how different people react to an oppressive environment shaped by misogynistic rules.
More subtle than a straightforward story about adolescent rebellion, it focuses much of its runtime on how the girls learn to police their own behavior. Both of the leads give strong performances, with Douglas showing the conflicted feelings bubbling beneath Vivien’s picture-perfect surface. To the other girls, Vivien is a strict perfectionist who meticulously obeys the rules and avoids personal connections. When speaking to authority figures, she’s cautiously thrilled to earn compliments for her good behavior. But when she’s alone, you see the doubts begin to shine through. Sophia opens Vivien’s eyes to some dark truths about the school, forcing her to take action for the first time in her life.
With a unique concept and a jaw-clenchingly suspenseful atmosphere, Level 16 should be a hit among fans of original indie sci-fi.
Level 16 is now on limited release in the U.S.
Gavia Baker-Whitelaw is a staff writer at the Daily Dot, covering geek culture and fandom. Specializing in sci-fi movies and superheroes, she also appears as a film and TV critic on BBC radio. Elsewhere, she co-hosts the pop culture podcast Overinvested. Follow her on Twitter: @Hello_Tailor