Migrant Children Face Grown-Up Problems in Engrossing ‘Tori and Lokita’

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Older Black girl drapes arm over shoulders of Black boy as they sit together looking left.
Lokita (Joely Mbundu) and Tori (Pablo Schils) are two migrant children making their way in Belgium in the latest film from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. (Janus Films)

Seventeen-year-old Lokita and 12-year-old Tori routinely introduce themselves as siblings, but they aren’t related. They made a connection on the smugglers’ boat from Africa to Italy, long before they got to Belgium. Their bond is now crucial to their survival. That kinship, more than their plight, is the heart and marrow of the Dardenne brothers’ engrossing new street saga, Tori and Lokita.

The movie opens on Lokita, in close-up, responding to an immigration officer’s gentle testing of her assertion that she is Tori’s sister. It’s a high-stakes game of truth or consequences: Lokita needs proper status and papers to get the legit, in-home care job she covets. We infer that Tori was granted asylum pretty quickly, hence the sibling-piggyback scheme they’ve concocted.

Out of the gate, it’s easy to root for the protagonists of Tori and Lokita (opening Friday, March 31 at the Opera Plaza Cinema following its prize-winning premiere at Cannes last year). They are lovely singers, dueting in an Italian restaurant to earn pocket money. But their smiles are illusory; there’s nothing carefree about their existence.

You don’t need to have seen any of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s haunting neorealist parables (La Promesse, Rosetta, The Son, The Child, Lorna’s Silence, The Kid with the Bike) to recognize that Lokita and Tori (who are played by nonprofessionals) are targets for exploitation — casualties of capitalism, if you will — even in affluent, cosmopolitan Europe. We know the landscape: With few contacts or resources, they have no margin for error.

A young Black boy and an older Black girl hold mics and smile at each other with keyboardist behind.
Pablo Schils and Joely Mbundu as the title characters in 'Tori and Lokita.' (Janus Films)

Lokita (Joely Mbundu) is squeezed between long-distance commands to send her mother money for her five brothers’ school admittance fees and in-her-face demands to repay the church-affiliated hoods in cahoots with the smugglers. (Those are all the details the Dardennes give us, just enough to extrapolate the patriarchal and institutional injustice that circumscribes Lokita’s life.)


Her desperation vanishes, briefly, in stolen moments of play with Tori (Pablo Schils) that remind us that these are children. Everything else in the movie is a dramatic argument against the injustice of children being compelled to solve grown-up problems without parents or other adults to help.

A worthy subject for a film, no question. Living on the edge, on the margins and forced to take petty jobs from criminals who make you argue for full payment of every euro earned, Lokita and Tori’s existence is plainly unsustainable. We watch and wait and hope and yearn for them to catch a break, or find a loophole. Tori and Lokita effortlessly engages us emotionally, but it doesn’t show us anything we haven’t seen in other movies about vulnerable migrants in impossible situations.

From the standpoint of a morality play, the filmmakers don’t make villains out of the bureaucrats (vetting new exiles) or the cops (Johnny-on-the-spot to question a Black kid running after dark while oblivious to drug trafficking outside nightclubs). Nor do they call out the broader society, suggested in this curiously underpopulated film by a well-off female driver who responds to Lokita’s plea for help at a critical moment and, spooked an instant later, shifts into drive and zooms off.

Young Black boy in blue jacket peers around a dark corner
Pablo Schils in 'Tori and Lokita.' (Janus Films)

The movie’s most trenchant analysis, in fact, may be to illuminate the social hierarchy between those with automobiles and everyone who gets around on foot, public transportation or bicycle.

As involving and nerve-wracking as the plot of Tori and Lokita is — with the tension amplified by the absence of a score — it doesn’t stick with you like, say, the hysterical urban nightmares of the Safdie brothers (Good Time, Uncut Gems). Admittedly, entertainment is not the Dardennes’ primary goal. But they do deliver something equally rewarding.

The filmmakers’ previous portraits of street-scarred people striving to create nurturing, family-like relationships and situations (albeit with very limited success) were extraordinary miniatures of yearning and awkwardness. Tori and Lokita gives us a healthy, empowering and profoundly satisfying relationship, even if it is compelled to thrive in a hothouse of deception and subterfuge.

And yet, and yet: The future is promised to no one.