‘Tori and Lokita’ highlights the power of friendship
By Chuck Lavazzi
The Belgian Dardennes brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc, have a keen interest in, and insight into, young individuals peripheral to mainstream society. They approach their narrowly focused stories with a deft touch and profound, restrained emotion. Writing and directing most of their films since 1987, their humanistic pattern holds true for their latest feature, “Tori and Lokita.”
Set in Belgium, it's the story of two refuges, Lokita from Benin and Tori from Cameroon, who lack legal immigration documents and suffer the consequences.
Lokita, an exceptionally resourceful, streetwise sixteen-year-old commands our attention, along with eleven-year-old Tori. Together, they battle to survive, navigating dangerous encounters with opportunistic criminals, facing bureaucratic nightmares, and dodging the police. Lying that they’re siblings, Lokita and Tori fiercely protect each other against the pervasive, oppressive system and the drug dealers, sexual victimizers, and businesses that exploit them, including the chef in a restaurant where Lokita works. Daily she struggles to earn enough to pay off the debt for her smugglers and to send money to her mother and five siblings back in Africa.
Through the heartwarming, defiant loyalty between Tori and Lokita (a perfect title since they unconditionally stick together), the Dardennes communicate their characteristic empathy for disenfranchised individuals without sentimental indulgence. The debut performances of Joely Mbundu as Lokita and Pablo Schils as Tori convey an uncanny, charismatic ferocity and shared joy. In an interview for the Telluride Film Festival, the Dardennes said that Tori and Lokita’s dilemma “as exiled, solitary, exploited and humiliated adolescents has acquired a new dimension thanks to their friendship . . . our film has become a denunciation of the violent and unjust situation experienced by these young people in exile in our country.”
At the Telluride Film Festival, a vivacious Joely Mbundu talked of unearthing and channeling Lokita’s vulnerability and strength, tenderness and trials. From the Congo, she knows this story, that some do not welcome “unaccompanied foreign minors.” This film offers an empathetic alternative. Awarded the prestigious Cannes Film Festival 75th Anniversary Prize, in French and Afrikaans with English subtitles, “Tori and Lokita” screens at Landmark’s Plaza Frontenac Cinema.