Tori and Lokita
Photograph: Christine Plenus
  • Film
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Tori and Lokita

3 out of 5 stars

The Dardenne brothers return with a surprising thriller about African migrants drawn into a Belgian underworld

Phil de Semlyen

Time Out says

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have made something suspiciously close to a thriller with this, their twelfth film. There’s handguns and bad guys driving Range Rovers. For those masters of small-scale vérité social dramas, it’s such a bracing sensation to see them tiptoeing into genre terrain, you’ll forgive the fact that the villains are two-dimensional and that the ending is jarringly abrupt. 

Of course, the siblings’ trademark empathy and political edge are still present and correct in Tori and Lokita, which follows two young African migrants trying to get a foothold on life in Europe. It’s another deeply humane parable of life on the margins in Belgium’s hardscrabble suburbs, engaging and heartbreaking in equal measure.

Framed in the Dardennes’ customary close-ups or captured with long handheld shots are Tori (Pablo Schils) and Lokita (Mbundu Joely), whose migration from Benin and Cameroon respectively has opened them up to new struggles and new dangers. Tori, a whipsmart kid who was persecuted back home as the supposed ‘son of a sorceror’, has residency papers and a place in care.

The teenage Lokita isn’t so lucky. Her claim to be Tori’s sister is picked apart by bureaucrats so impersonal, they barely feature in the frame during the fi​l​m’s stark opening interview scene. Deprived of official status, Lokita deals drugs on behalf of the unsympathetic chef in an Italian restaurant to try to pay off the people traffickers​ who brought her to Europe​ and save some money for her mum back home. She and the loyal, streetsmart Tori make perilous nocturnal runs across town to earn a few euros and some leftover focaccia. 

The second half of the film shifts from the streets of Liège to a remote warehouse where Lokita exchanges her freedom for the chance of forged residency papers. She tends the marijuana plants of an illegal hydroponics farm, locked inside a breezeblock prison, deprived of her phone and casually informed to press a panic button in the event fire should break out.

The Dardenne brothers have made something suspiciously close to a thriller 

But as the title implies, the Dardennes are most interested in using this bleak scenario as a proving ground for the friendship between the two young Africans in an unfriendly world. We learn quickly that they aren’t really brother and sister – they met on the boat to Europe and constructed the story – but then we watch them slowly become exactly that. The two first-time actors bring real warmth and authenticity to their roles.

Solidarity and mutual support underpin the story, as does an obvious frustration with the state’s response to the migrant crisis. The Dardennes remain reliable champions of the underclasses and the vulnerable at the margins of society. Here, they pointedly suggest that cruel bureaucracy is only helping to fuel crime and exploitation. You hope the right people are watching.

In US theaters Mar 24.

Cast and crew

  • Director:Luc Dardenne, Jean-Pierre Dardenne
  • Screenwriter:Luc Dardenne, Jean-Pierre Dardenne
  • Cast:
    • Charlotte De Bruyne
    • Pablo Schils
    • Mbundu Joely
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