THE STORY – A friendship unites two youngsters who have traveled alone from Africa and find themselves contending with the cruel conditions of their exile in Belgium.
THE CAST – Pablo Schils, Joely Mbundu, Alban Ukaj & Tijman Govaerts
THE TEAM – Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne (Directors/Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 88 Minutes
“Tori and Lokita” follows two young Black immigrants, Lokita (Joely Mbundu) and Tori (Pablo Schils), as they work together to help pay smugglers, search for jobs on the black market, and send money to their families. At the same time, they are posing as brother and sister. Lokita tries to obtain a work visa, but after another rejection, she accepts a drug dealer’s (Alban Ukaj) offer to work in a hangar tending cannabis plantations. With Lokita being locked in the hangar with no form of communication with the outside world, Tori attempts to find the location and sneak in so that he can stay in contact with his friend.
As the title would suggest, this film focuses on the two leading characters and the events they experience as immigrants in Belgium. World-renowned directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne keep the story focused and grounded with a short runtime, straightforward screenplay, and lack of any distracting stylistic choices. The simple presentation of “Tori and Lokita” effectively highlights the leading characters’ challenges, showing the world directly through their eyes so that we might understand their struggles. The viewer can connect with these characters because of what the Dardennes precisely show on screen, even with smaller moments, such as the bonding of Lokita and Tori through singing karaoke together. Their camera also helps capture the claustrophobic feeling that Lokita goes through on numerous occasions, whether trapped in the car with the people who smuggled her into Belgium or when she is trapped in the hangar. It is simple but gripping work done to keep the story concentrated and tight throughout.
With a film called “Tori and Lokita,” you need two strong performances for the titular roles. This marks the on-screen debut for both Joely Mbundu and Pablo Schils, and they give fantastic performances. Their chemistry sells the young actors’ performances most, with their sibling-like bond coming across as second nature to both of them. This helps the audience buy into the two as inseparable, helping to sell the narrative plot point of Tori tracking down Lokita in the hangar later in the film. They do not require flashback sequences or intense dialogue to sell the trauma of their past. Instead, they give raw and emotional performances to convey that naturally so that the audience can understand the pain both characters have gone through before the film’s events, especially Lokita.
Some may struggle with how the themes and subject matter are presented in this film. There is little room to breathe during the short runtime as situations consistently escalate for our leading characters, with no signs of hope for them in such an unjust world. It is an unfortunate and uncomfortable truth for many refugees and a story that must be told in the realistic way the Dardennes have done in order to present the story honestly. However, the point where the film does suffer the most due to its tonal imbalance is in the finale, which does escalate in action very drastically in a way that almost comes across as unbelievable. With most of the screen time dedicated to setting up the conflict with Lokita in the hangar, the film could have allowed an extra ten minutes to solidify the conclusion, creating even more emotional impact within those final minutes.
“Tori and Lokita” is a film that, once you have seen it the first time, will be tough to revisit in the future. However, it is a story that will dramatically tug at your heartstrings and make you look at the current refugee system and realize that so much more progress is needed to accept these people into our countries. The Dardennes are known for their depiction of the everyday person placed in difficult situations, but it is a focal point that works for them, and this is no exception. Here’s hoping Joely Mbundu and Pablo Schils use this as a platform to earn more roles soon, as both deserve to be seen more on the big screen.