‘Tori and Lokita’ Review: Tale of loyalty and money

“Tori and Lokita,” the new movie written and directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, is just as spectacular a statement as “Triangle of Sadness.” But it’s about what’s happening on the frayed opposite end of the economic spectrum. Tori (Pablo Schils) and Lokita (Joely Mbundu) are immigrant kids living on their own in an unnamed city in Belgium. They’re from Benin and Cameroon, and they’re passing themselves off as brother and sister. Tori, who’s 11, is as tough and resourceful as he is angelic-looking. (He knows how to use his looks to fool people.) Lokita is 16, but with her hair drawn into cornrows, she has a face that’s already sullen with adult worry and resignation; she’s like someone out of a Walker Evans photograph. And we can see why.

Lokita is trying to get her working papers, but the Belgian immigration officials aren’t buying her story about how she rescued Tori from an orphanage. The story isn’t true, and doesn’t sound true. Yet these two kids, who met on the boat coming over from West Africa, really are like brother and sister. They live together in a state facility, they look out for each other, and they’ve got an operation going, working for a chef, Betim (Alban Ukaj), who uses the restaurant he works in as a cover for the business of selling drugs.

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She has to send money to her mother (she has five siblings back in Cameroon), because that’s the whole reason she came over in the first place. And when the state approval for the working papers fails to come through, her only option is to get fake papers through Betim, who’s going to charge her 10,000 Euro. Betim also pays Lokita for sexual favors, which, as we see in several disturbing scenes, are scarcely voluntary and add to the crushing load of anguish of a girl who is doing whatever’s necessary to survive.

Working in their rigorously lyrical drama-as-documentary style, the Dardennes place the audience on the hamster wheel of Tori and Lokita’s lives, in a way that’s both harrowing and immersive. We experience, moment by moment, the characters’ daily lunge at cobbling together enough money to get by. Money is what the film is all about — in a sense, it’s the only thing it’s about. Yet the Dardennes, in the humanity of their austerity, aren’t being reductive. They recognize and refuse to shy away from the fact that money is life — or, at least, that life depends on it. For anyone watching who’s lucky enough to have enough of it, the mad desperate scramble for money in “Tori and Lokita” becomes as charged as a thriller and as bracing as a slap in the face.

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