Tori and Lokita (2022) ☆☆☆(3/4): A grim refugee thriller from the Dardenne brothers

The Dardenne brothers’ latest film “Tori and Lokita”, which received the special 75th Anniversary Award when it was premiered at the Cannes Film Festival early in last year, is another solid social drama to distinguish their long and admirable filmmaking career. Although I wish it could delve more into its two titular characters’ fragile and desperate social status, the movie firmly held my attention while also making me understand and empathize more with them along the story, and that is more than enough to compensate for several weak points including its rather abrupt finale.

During its early part, the movie, which is set in some unspecified city of Belgium, gradually lets us get to know the current situation of a young Beninese boy named Tori (Pablo Schils) and an older African girl named Lokita (Mbundu Joely). As mentioned later in the story, Tori is allowed to stay in Belgium while being recognized as a refugee orphan by the government, but Lokita, who has incidentally disguised herself as Tori’s older sister for some time, still struggles to get a work visa because she cannot convince those government officials that she is Tori’s older sister. She does get some support and help from Tori as well as several other people for her latest interview, but she is not so confident from the beginning, and, to make matters worse, she also often suffers chronic anxiety attack.

As observing how Lokita and Tori try to live day by day, we wonder whether her anxiety attack was resulted from their harsh condition of life at present. Both of them temporarily stay together at a local shelter, and Tori has attended a local elementary school for a while, but they also have gotten themselves into a local drug business mainly because Lokita needs to not only send some money to her family in Africa but also pay her debt to two brokers who brought her into Belgium. At one point, these two brokers unexpectedly come upon Lokita, and we soon see how mean and heartless they can be.

Nevertheless, Tori and Lokita still hope that things will get better for them in the end. Although she is not his older sister, Lokita really cares about Tori, and Tori has no problem at all with accepting her as his older sister. Although the movie does not tell or show that much about how they got themselves associated with each other, the emotional bond between them feels palpable whenever they are together, and there is a little cheerful moment when they joyously sing together a Sicilian song in front of the customers of a local restaurant where they have worked under some criminal chef.

Lokita and Tori have been mostly content with earning bit by bit while delivering drug here and there as demanded, but then that criminal chef dangles a supposedly better job opportunity in front of Lokita. All she will have to do is watching over a small illegal marijuana farm during one month, but, of course, there is a catch. During that period, she must be totally isolated inside that illegal marijuana farm for security reasons, and she will even not be allowed to contact with Tori. Naturally, she hesitates a bit, but she comes to accept this job offer anyway because, well, she really needs money right now while feeling more uncertain about what may happen next to her and Tori.

Tori does not have much problem with Lokita’s choice because he knows too well how desperate their financial circumstance is, and Lokita tries to adjust herself to the following period of isolation in that illegal marijuana farm, but both of them soon find themselves becoming more desperate than before. While Lokita misses Tori more and more, Tori also wants to see Lokita right now, and that eventually leads him to one little but risky adventure which eventually takes him to Lokita.

Not so surprisingly, Lokita and Tori later embark on a little scheme of theirs while not telling anything to their criminal associates, and that is where the movie starts to build up some tension on the screen. As the handheld camera of cinematographer Benoît Dervaux, who previously collaborated with the Dardenne brothers in “Young Ahmed” (2019), steadily and patiently follows our two main characters, we become more nervous about what may happen to them at any point, and the movie draws us more into their increasingly dangerous situation even though we can already discern what is waiting for them from the very beginning.

I must tell you that I have some reservation on the finale mainly because it is delivered in a way which feels a little too hurried and contrived in my inconsequential opinion. I am not so sure about whether it is right, and I also cannot help but wonder whether the Dardenne brothers should give a bit more dignity and compassion to their two titular main characters. Nonetheless, we all can agree that 1) the finale feels devastatingly inevitable at least and 2) the movie is still held together well by the excellent natural acting from Pablo Schils and Mbundu Joely, which reminds us of how the Dardenne brothers have dexterously drawn memorable performances from numerous first timers in many of their films.

In conclusion, “Tori and Lokita”, which was recently selected as the opening film for the Jeonju International Film Festival in South Korea, shows the Dardenne brothers back in their element after “Young Ahmed” (2019), which showed them trying to expand their usual territory of the young and dispossessed at the bottom of the society but unfortunately ended up being the least satisfying work in their whole career. In case of “Tori and Lokita”, they are a bit more successful in comparison, and I sincerely hope that they will improve further in their next film in the future.

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