Tori and Lokita (Review) – A Tough-To-Stomach Migrant Drama

DIRECTORS: Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne

CAST: Pablo Schils, Joely Mbundu, Charlotte De Bruyne, Tijmen Govaerts, Alban Ukaj

RUNNING TIME: 88 mins

CERTIFICATE: 15

BASICALLY…: Two young African migrants (Schils and Joely) strike up a friendship whilst in Belgium…

NOW FOR THE REVIEW…

For a number of decades, filmmaker brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have won over critics and audiences with their dour, bleak and entirely naturalistic depictions of working-class European strife, putting them in the same conversation as other social realist directors like Ken Loach, Andrea Arnold and Spike Lee with their numerous dramas and documentaries about the side to life that most in power would rather you not see.

Their latest feature, Tori and Lokita, is particularly timely with its core themes of migration and child exploitation, which given an upsetting amount of similar stories in the news as of late, not to mention the numerous other films released this year alone that have dealt with these topics, can seem all too much all at once. However, neither Dardenne sibling appears to waver a single amount of their fierce ability to expose the dark and haunting aspects of modern society, and here have crafted a devastating drama that leaves you completely on the edge from how ugly these particular pockets can be.

The film picks up some time after teenager Lokita (Joely Mbundu) has fled Africa and migrated to Belgium with her younger brother Tori (Pablo Schils) – or, at least, that’s what they’re telling the authorities. In reality, both youngsters just happened to meet on the same boat out of their respective Benin and Cameroon, and have been posing as brother and sister to boost their chances of staying in the country, but their friendship has grown so strong throughout this deception that they almost have become siblings. However, with Lokita’s asylum chances growing slimmer by the hour, and with her traffickers sternly demanding repayment, the two youths take up drug running for a sleazy local chef (Alban Ukaj) as a means to make some cash, which leads to a three-month stint in a secret cannabis garden for Lokita that threatens to end in disaster for both of them, especially when Tori also becomes involved.

It goes without saying that Tori and Lokita can often be a tough watch. For just under ninety minutes, the Dardennes lay nearly every possible bad scenario onto our young asylum seekers; to give mere examples, they’re neglected by carers, treated with hostility by local police, physically and racially abused, roughed up by their demanding traffickers – who, in a cruel twist of fate, happen to be a pair of corrupt church officials – and in a couple of traumatising scenes Lokita is sexually propositioned in what are very clearly one-sided transactions. What’s more, the emotional trauma that both title characters carry from what had to have been a devastating migration (Lokita, for one, is prone to severe panic attacks when faced with the prospect of being away from her adoptive brother for a long period of time) leaves them far more vulnerable to be exploited in the ways that they are, in manners that are difficult to stomach regardless of whether or not you also suffer from the occasional panic attack. The Dardennes are relentless in their blatant anger and fury towards the cruel system in which Tori and Lokita find themselves in, and do not hesitate to push things further and further into despair until your little heart cannot take it anymore. It’s undeniably effective, but at the same time it can be such a bleak viewing experience that you almost start to wonder if there is ironically a sense of exploitation in the ways that these dark and unforgiving themes are being handled.

However, there is heart at the centre of Tori and Lokita, and of course it comes from the two title characters themselves. Needless to say, their plight and goals are entirely sympathetic, even when they’re forced to do things that nobody should ever be objected to, but while they may not exactly be related you still feel that sweet sibling connection between them, which not only makes you want them to escape their horrific situation but also leaves you even more depressed and anxious when things inevitably go south for them at every available opportunity. Young and relatively new actors Pablo Schils and Joely Mbundu easily slip into their naturalistic roles, with the latter carrying the far heavier load between them, and their relationship ends up feeling far more believable because of their genuine chemistry where you can tell they really care for each other like any normal brother and sister would.

It’s a very well-acted and dramatically intense drama that clearly wants to stick out from the group of other migrant-themed dramas this year, and it certainly feels more realised and less generic than something like The Swimmers, but that isn’t to say that this is in any way an easy watch – it wouldn’t be doing its job correctly if you were to come away from this film feeling uplifted in any way shape or form. In that regard, this might not be for you if you’re looking for something to raise your spirits, as this will send them right back down to the Earth’s core along with all the other emotions that the Dardennes have made you feel in the past.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Tori and Lokita is an effective migrant drama that easily makes you sympathise with its title characters amidst an exceptionally harsh environment with even nastier circumstances, which makes for some bleak viewing that can be tough to stomach for anyone who, like its leads, may be emotionally vulnerable.

Tori and Lokita is now showing in cinemas nationwide – click here to find a screening near you!

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