‘Tori and Lokita’ Review: Precarious Lives in Exile
Like most of the films from the brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, their latest — the harrowing “Tori and Lokita” — is a story about outcasts. And like most of their films, it too is a suspense thriller about moral conscience, one that takes place in and around a gray, Belgian city. There, two young African migrants are struggling to make a home in an unkind world in which nearly every human exchange is transactional and carries the threat of betrayal.
Tori and Lokita — played by Pablo Schils and Joely Mbundu, both appealing nonprofessionals — are living at a gently chaotic children’s center and passing as brother and sister; they’re also in limbo. Tori, a young-looking 12, has his residency papers, but the 17-year-old Lokita hasn’t yet been granted hers. Faced with the specter of Lokita’s deportation, the two are intensely focused on finding a way for her to stay in the country. They pore over her story, rehearsing what she should tell immigration officers, all the while trying to dodge the smugglers to whom they owe money and running orders for a local (illegal) cannabis dealer.
The movie opens with Lokita in the middle of an immigration interview, the camera fixed on her in close-up—for two progressively uneasy minutes—as she responds to offscreen questions. Her face and voice are composed at first, her answers a touch canned, though everything shifts when the interviewer challenges her story. Because there are no cutaways to the questioner, your gaze, your focus, remains on Lokita, compelling you to keep looking even as the queries keep coming and she begins to crumble and then to cry, her testimony and self-possession undone by the soft droning of dehumanizing power.
The interrogation is uncomfortable to watch, which is the point. The Dardennes aren’t simply forcing you to see Lokita, to see her bravery and tremulous vulnerability, they are also making you a witness to state violence. The story’s most conspicuous villains are the drug dealer and his gang as well as the smugglers, all of whom hound and exploit the children relentlessly, demanding money and, in the case of the dealer, worse than Lokita. Yet, as the movie underscores, the larger fault here lies with a country—and by extension, its people—that treats migrants so inhumanely (some worse than others).