Tori and Lokita

As we watch a young black woman being questioned about the name of the school she attended, then the name of its principal and just how she knew the younger boy she met there was her brother, we can guess that she is hiding something.  But while the Beninese immigrant trying to get Belgian residency documents isn’t really related to the little boy, there is an inseparable bond between “Tori and Lokita.”

Laura's Review: B+

Belgian writer/director siblings Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne won their seventh prize at Cannes for their latest film and while they have never made a bad one, this is one of their best, a heartbreaking and, hopefully, galvanizing film about the horrific exploitation of immigrants.  The filmmakers are known for working with non professional actors, but they have surpassed themselves with the performances they have coaxed from young Pablo Schils as the resourceful and daring Tori and Joely Mbundu as the maternal and overburdened Lokita. 

As Lokita struggles to get her papers so she can work as a home care aid, she and Tori, who, as the persecuted child of a ‘sorcerer,’ already has his, are housed in an immigration center with a 10 p.m. curfew.  During the day, Tori attends school, but at night the two scrounge for a few Euros and left over focaccia at a restaurant, encouraging patrons to sing karaoke and, more dangerously, deal drugs for its chef, Betim (Alban Ukaj, "Quo Vadis, Aida?"), who demands sexual acts from Lokita while Tori runs his drugs.  Meanwhile, Firmin (Marc Zinga, "Spectre") and Justine (Nadège Ouedraogo) demand they attend Church on Sunday to ensure their 600 Euro payment for smuggling them into the country is made, body searching them to strip them of any additional cash (it was on their boat that Tori and Lokita met).  When Lokita calls her mother to explain why she cannot send the 200 Euro needed to register her five siblings for school, she’s accused of spending the money on herself.

These two are not only loyal to each other, but love one another, Lokita encouraging Tori’s schooling, Tori drawing pictures for her, their karaoke tune an Italian folk song learned on their journey.  So when Lokita agrees to a job for Betim without realizing her phone will be taken away and she will be locked into an indoor marijuana farm far outside of Liège, she is as desperate to find a way to call him as he is to find her.

The Dardennes and their cinematographer Benoît Dervaux present their two protagonists as a sphere of warmth amidst inhospitable spaces.  Even outdoors, danger becomes more urgent when these two are separated, Lokita’s early warning as Tori dashes across the street keeping us on alert throughout, like Chekov’s gun.  Dervaux will shoot them curled together at night, subtle lighting illuminating the peaceful planes of their faces.  He’ll also follow dynamic action, Schils like some kind of juvenile parkour practioner as he scrambles up 2 x 4’s or improvises a sled for a quick getaway.   

Mbundu and Schils keep us so invested in the fate of Tori and Lokita, the last half hour of the Dardennes’ film becomes almost unbearable.  “Tori and Lokita” delivers a devastating dose of empathy.

Robin's Review: B+

16-year old Lokita (Mbundu Joely) and 11-year old Tori (Pablo Schils) are refugees from Africa eking out an existence in a Belgian city. They must use their wits at every opportunity to survive a very hostile environment for “Tori and Lokita.”

It seems that movies have divided into two parts. One part, Hollywood with all the money, creates big budget extravaganzas that need to make hundreds of millions of dollars to just break even. Then, there are the rest, the larger part, that make films on a budget that would not cover an “Avenger” movie’s catering costs for a day. Truth be told, I prefer the latter to the former.

“Tori and Lokita” is one of the larger part, a little film that has a whole lot of heart and tells an emotional story of family and survival. We learn early on that the two are related in spirit, not in blood, and they both love and respect each other. The two work very hard to feed and house themselves, doing whatever is necessary to get by.

To manage their life, they take on any job, like drug mule, to make their meager earnings. Lokita even has go give in to the sexual demands of their boss, the Chef, who fronts as a cook in a restaurant to do his drug dealings.

Do not expect a happily-ever-after story. Not by a long shot. Do expect a story about two young people that will resonate long after you see it. I invested myself in these kids and their ups and downs I felt, too. The Dardenne brothers, Luc and Jean-Pierre, create a story of fear, hope, love and caring for those close to you. It is a tragic tale of survival but one with that undercurrent of hope.

Janus Films opened "Tori and Lokita" in select theaters on 3/24/23.