Tori and Lokita call each other brother and sister. Biologically, it’s not true. Emotionally it’s more true than anyone around them could know. Their relationship is the core of “Tori and Lokita,” a tight, heartrending social realist drama from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, who’ve worked in the genre for decades and do it better than almost anyone else.
Tori (Pablo Schils) is a boy from Benin who’s on the cusp of adolescence but speaks and carries himself like he’s younger. Lokita (Joely Mbundu) is the young woman from Cameroon who looks out for him. They claim to be orphans, but the movie pretty quickly establishes this as a cover story. They keep going over the details together to keep their stories straight when they’re dealing with state authorities, such as the functionaries that Lokita deals with in her quest to get a work visa (she’s always rejected) and the cops who stop the two on the street for no good reason. Lokita owes a lot of money to African smugglers who brought her here so she could earn money to send back home to her mother.
The best scenes in the Dardennes’ latest film observe the tender interactions between the two characters, African immigrants struggling to survive in a new land that despises them for their skin color, their national origin, and their poverty. As often happens in relationships between biological siblings with an age difference of more than a couple of years, the elder becomes a quasi-parent to the younger. We see Lokita doting on Tori, keeping him on track, and even singing a lullaby to him at bedtime. He wasn’t always her responsibility, but she protects him anyway because that’s love.
Lokita works at a restaurant owned by Betim (Alban Ukaj) that’s really a front for drug dealing. Betim throws Lokita a little bit of money for unspecified sexual favors and to sing for his customers (sometimes in a duet with Tori). But most of her wages come from distributing Betim’s stuff. Lokita walks all over the city delivering drugs to customers, bringing Tori along. Most of the interactions are uneventful, as if they’re kids from an earlier era going door-to-door collecting subscription money for a newspaper. But sometimes you get a hint of potential violence.
There are also challenges from police who harass immigrants, government bureaus that could deport Lokita, an African gang that paid to bring Lokita to Belgium and extorts most of the money she makes, and the everyday indignities of urban life. The most insistent threat comes from Betim and his crew, who put their business’s survival over anyone”s humanity. When Lokita gets a job tending Betim’s drug greenhouse, she becomes a prisoner who’s not allowed to use a cell phone to contact anyone, including Tori, and no matter how coldly her employers/captors behave, you can rest assured that they can be even colder.
The lead performances are extraordinary. They’re real-seeming, in the manner of so many gifted but relatively inexperienced performers who haven’t yet had the spontaneity crushed out of them by the cliches of formal training. And, as is often the case with the Dardennes, the handheld, up-close, acting-driven filmmaking puts you in the middle of the drama, to a sometimes nerve-wracking degree, though with a bit less shakiness than you would’ve seen in the brothers’ earlier features (switching to digital cameras may have brought understated elegance to their previously rough-and-tumble style). There might be fewer than 100 shots in the movie. The scenes tend to unfold in just one take, which would be impressive no matter who the actors were, but that is especially noteworthy here, considering that the two leads aren’t known quantities. A long take in the middle of the movie that follows physically and emotionally intense action through the halls and rooms of Betim’s drug greenhouse lasts almost five minutes, but it’s executed with such offhand confidence you never think of it as a logistical feat.
The “you-are-there” style works better in films like this than in stories about more privileged characters (Ken Loach does it brilliantly as well), because what defines Tori and Lokita’s life more than anything else is urgency. Everything is present-tense. They can’t waste mental bandwidth looking too far backwards or ahead. They don’t have enough time, they don’t have enough money, and they’re surrounded by people who exploit, harass, or ignore them. They have to keep moving, and keep their eyes and ears on hyper-alert as they travel. Ninety-nine percent of every day is spent dealing with what’s right in front of them while being careful not to make a mistake that will get them deported, jailed, or killed.
The ending is so bleak that it will linger in viewers’ minds for the rest of their lives—much like the tragic Neorealist Italian films of the 1940s that the Dardennes films often evoke, especially “Bicycle Thieves” and “Rome, Open City.” Perhaps there’s a conversation to be had about the way the film occasionally takes too much of a macro view, seeing its title characters mainly as pawns in a corrupt system more so than freestanding individuals and part of a Black immigrant community that’s loathed for their Otherness but needed for their willingness to do low-wage and/or dangerous jobs. But the lead actors bring audiences inside each moment so skillfully you can intuit flashes of context the script may not necessarily have provided. And the Dardennes’ empathy is so great, and their anger at the situation so unmistakable, that the entire film is borne along by a desire to shock viewers into calling for change.
Now playing in select theaters.