Level 16 introduces us to a grim girls’ school that functions via bizarre and rigid rules. Timetables are strictly kept (or there are terrible consequences). No one is allowed outside (the air is full of toxins). Everyone must be demure and obedient (these are the feminine virtues). Nightly face-washing is elevated to the level of a ritual. Angry sores are a not uncommon occurrence. One day, if the girls are very good, they may be adopted by wealthy families–though why this should necessitate their prospective parents examining their unconscious bodies, no one can say.
Of course, most of the girls don’t know about these appraisals. But Sophia (Celina Martin) and Vivien (Katie Douglas), who have developed an intense, passionate loyalty to each other despite spending years apart–their teacher, the chilly but brittle Miss Brixil (Sara Canning), eventually explains that the school strives to prevent the girls from forming any actual friendships–find out, and we follow through their high-stakes fumbling in the dark as they try to make sense of a world that isn’t what they think it is.
It’s not what we think it is, either, mostly because what it is is kind of stupid. But while the answers in Level 16 are not nearly as satisfying as the questions, the film’s claustrophobic dread has an icy appeal. It also occasionally musters either some genuine disorientation or some sickened anger. The best scene may be when Vivien tries to appeal to the seemingly kindly Dr. Miro (Peter Outerbridge), who is chummy with her in an creepy uncle kind of way–and we see the exact moment when Miro’s indulgence of her humanity ends and all that affable, sleazy good-will shuts off like a faucet. He realizes that Vivien has started thinking of herself as a person, and he does his merciless best to crush her fledgling independence under his heel.
Howard Hawks famously said that a good movie has three good scenes and no bad ones. Let’s say a potentially interesting movie just needs the first part. Level 16 has some bad scenes, but it counterbalances them with some eerie visuals, effectively used tension, solid performances, and a soupcon of ambition. It’s enough to make me want to pick up director Danishka Esterhazy’s 2021 Slumber Party Massacre remake, which I previously had zero interest in, and it has the nostalgic aura of a horror/sci-fi VHS tape you could have once picked up from a random bargain bin: Huh, I didn’t know this existed.
Level 16 is streaming on Netflix.