By: Emily von Seele
One of my favorite films to come out of this year’s Fantastic Fest was the sci-fi tale of friendship and resilience, Level 16. Set in the Vestalis Academy for girls, the film focuses on Vivien (Katie Douglas) and Sophia (Celina Martin), two girls who have spent years living and being trained in the institution. The prison-like school adheres to a strict code of conduct, preparing girls for eventual adoption by wealthy families. The girls are being trained to be perfect daughters and young women — they obey a strict set of rules, striving to be obedient, sweet, and clean.
As the girls reach the prestigious Level 16 of their training, the time nears for their adoptions. While most of the group is excited, Sophia is concerned. She has noticed things around the school that have given her pause — strange noises at night, girls being taken out of the dormitories while they are asleep, strange medications being administered. She shares her concerns with Vivien, who, though initially resistant to the idea of questioning the school and its authority figures, can’t deny that something seems strange.
As the mystery at the heart of the Vestalis Academy unfolds, the girls become more resolute in their desire to break free of their surroundings. It is here that we see a beautiful tale of friendship emerge. Vivien, who has always been solitary — choosing to master her lessons, keep her head down, and look out only for herself — finds herself growing closer to Sophia. She places trust in the other girl and, in turn, is trusted herself. She lets her guard down in ways she never considered before as she develops the first real friendship of her life.
Writer/Director Danishka Esterhazy weaves a story that is full of intrigue, mystery, and, above all, friendship. These girls are trained for compliance. They never question authority, never speak up, and always do as they are told. They are trained to be docile and easy to control. To see these girls come together and offer each other strength and support amidst that darkness is empowering and beautiful.
In the post-screening Q&A, Esterhazy said she had written this script 10 years ago. At that time, financiers scoffed at the idea of a teenage girl leading a story like this. They said audiences wouldn’t be interested. That girls and women don’t watch science fiction. That the story wasn’t relatable. Fortunately, the world has caught up with her vision and, after years of trying, she was finally able to bring this story to the screen and to see these rich characters realized. This tale of female friendship blossoming in the dark hallways of the Vestalis Academy is one that will certainly appeal to genre fans and will have a lasting impact on audiences yearning to see this kind of relationship onscreen.