Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have been favourites at Cannes Film Festival for many years and were awarded the special 75th anniversary award for their latest effort. The film, their twelfth collaboration as both writers and directors, is Tori & Lokita, a drama which follows two youngsters seeking asylum in modern-day Belgium. Posing as brother and sister though in fact they are really good friends who met on the boat from Benin, Tori (Pablo Schils) and Lokita (Mbundu Joely) turn to petty crime to make ends meet whilst they wait for their immigration paperwork.
Well versed in telling stories through a working-class lens, the directors adopt a cinema verité style for their storytelling. Taking its time to introduce the titular characters, the opening act closely studies the bond the pair hold onto through very challenging circumstances, their protective connection reminiscent of the older sister-younger brother relationship from Sarah Gavron’s coming-of-age picture Rocks.
Any joy they share is unfortunately very short-lived; the film uses their plight and desperation to drive the plot forward as they deal drugs for local thugs under the guise of a pizza delivery service. Tori and Lokita go to great lengths for their own and each other’s safety, which leads to distressing scenes and well-crafted moments of tension and suspense. The final act is powerfully abrupt, and cruelly minimises their humanity to an extent, reducing them to just two of thousands of youngsters facing the same peril across Europe in the current climate.
In-keeping with the naturalistic approach to filmmaking, the cast is largely made up of non-professional actors. For leads Schils and Joely, this is their on-screen debuts, and in the hands of many this could be an ill-judged decision. However, with the Dardennes’ wealth of experience in documentary making and of course in their fiction features, they garner a vital authenticity from their performers. In their antagonistic supporting roles, Alban Ukaj and Tijmen Govaerts are excellent. Their understated performances are quietly vicious, exploiting the harshness of the system to take advantage of the vulnerable protagonists.
A solid entry into the Dardennes’ collection of bleak, social-realist struggles, Tori & Lokita is a simple but effective illustration of immigration’s potential pitfalls. Difficult to endure yet culturally important to witness, this is an all-too-timely cautionary tale.