Lean on Me
By Matthew Eng

Tori and Lokita
Dirs. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium/France, Sideshow/Janus Films

The intently focused face of first-time actress Joely Mbundu opens Tori and Lokita with a jolt. Centered in a tight, prolonged close-up, Mbundu’s Cameroonian refugee Lokita finds and loses her composure as she struggles to answer background-validating queries from an offscreen Belgian immigration official so she can secure a work visa. This interview, which rapidly becomes a grilling, injects Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s twelfth feature with an urgency acutely absent from 2016’s fitfully compelling whodunnit The Unknown Girl and 2019’s nebulous radicalization drama Young Ahmed, the nadir of the brothers’ humanist project, which has been ongoing—at least in fictional form—for four decades now.

Mbundu and Pablo Schils, also a novice actor, star as the title pair; both were selected after an extensive casting process that purposely avoided professional performers. Stigmatized throughout his short life for being a so-called sorcerer child in his native Benin, Schils’s 12-year-old Tori was defended and saved from further persecution by 17-year-old Lokita on their passage from Africa to Italy. Since then, they have clung together, identifying themselves as blood siblings and spinning an elaborate fiction to stay together as they attempt to permanently settle in the Belgian city of Liège. By day, Tori attends school, but by night, he and Lokita sing in an Italian restaurant and act as dealers in a drug ring run out of the basement kitchen by Betim (Alban Ukaj), its lone chef. Lokita hopes to get her papers, find steady employment as a home health aide, and move out of the shelter and into an apartment with Tori. But when the immigration bureau, seeing through their concocted relation, renders these hopes impossible, Lokita turns to ever more hazardous means to procure a visa; she agrees to hole up in Betim’s rural grow house in exchange for fabricated papers, a plan that takes her off the grid and, more distressingly, separates her from Tori for three months.

As their screenplay wastes no time in setting up insurmountable stakes, particularly for Lokita, one might initially wonder if the Dardennes’s protagonists will be allowed to amount to more than the sum of their abjection. Prone to panic attacks, the traumatized Lokita is unequipped to deal with her present hardships, which include pleasing Betim, who routinely coerces her into sex, and paying off the sinister smugglers (Marc Zinga and Nadège Ouedraogo) who transported her and Tori from Italy to Belgium. Even Lokita’s mother, offscreen in Cameroon with Lokita’s five brothers, drains her of money after accusing her daughter of selfishly spending such meager earnings on herself.

Betim, his lieutenants, and the hounding smugglers are all cardboard villains, reducible to their lecherous, avaricious, and altogether heartless deeds. The Dardennes deploy these stock adversaries and their clear-cut demands to convey a coherent worldview and an abiding sense of brother and sister against the world. At the same time, the resolute clarity of their well-trod storytelling techniques can yield a flatness of character, uncomfortably exemplified by the blurry teenage extremist at the center of Young Ahmed and evident here Tori’s brave face and Lokita’s largely reactive behavior. As the Dardennes have turned their gaze to nonwhite characters, one may reasonably wonder why their adolescent protagonists increasingly lack a palpable force of being. Combing through their filmography, I can easily recall the curious, restive, and occasionally clownish presence of Jérémie Renier’s guilt-wracked child mechanic in La promesse (1996), the anguished, combustible desperation of Émilie Dequenne’s job-hunting Rosetta (1999) or the by turns volatile and vulnerable potency of Thomas Doret’s foster child in The Kid with a Bike (2011). These characters share a vivid, thinking restlessness that suggests untold depths and enables them to linger in the mind not as symbols but flesh and blood. It is difficult to grasp Tori and Lokita as people credibly existing in a world outside the film's confines and not just figments in the Dardennes's imagination.

Since Two Days, One Night (2014), for which the brothers were unfairly dinged in certain quarters for deigning to cast an actress as famous and fetching as Marion Cotillard as a workaday drudge, the Dardennes have fiddled with their practice here and there, perhaps uncertain about how best to utilize cinema to build awareness of intercontinental atrocities and longstanding systems of exploitation. In the intervening years, it seems that something has slackened or else broadened in the Dardennes’ narrative approach. Their rage at the world’s divisions and injustices has only been amplified, but they have faltered at dramatizing how such divisions and injustices might color the more mundane, less sensational circumstances of those experiencing these crises first-hand—not just in government offices or drug dens but in shelters, schools, and places of work.

The Dardennes’ films have increasingly incorporated bold-faced conventions of the thriller; think of the long-withheld killer of a sex worker in The Unknown Girl or the set piece involving a smuggled pen, crudely beveled into a knife, in Young Ahmed. Whole sequences in Tori and Lokita, especially a labyrinthine break-in, play out with tight suspense, elevated by the directors’ keen eye for methodical detail and the formative, undersung contributions of their longtime editor Marie-Hélène Dozo. These moments often pivot around Tori and establish him as the more dynamic character, a boy who is fearless, big-hearted, and remarkably, perhaps excessively resourceful. It’s a credit to the emotional gravity of Schils’s and Mbundu’s performances, both apart from and in concert with each other, that we believe Tori and Lokita’s inseparability from the get-go. Their committed bond grounds the film in something unmistakably, helplessly human, no matter the script’s contrivances and the flatness of character that gives them less creative leeway than the young actors who precede them across the Dardennes’ oeuvre.

The brothers propel Tori and Lokita towards an ending that shocks and devastates; never has violence been this forthright and final in a Dardenne brothers film. The sealing of their fate is made possible as much by the state’s inaction and the moral failure of its agents as it is by the devious cruelty of corrupt mercenaries. The brothers drive this message home in a didactic, abbreviated coda where the fury of a concluding political statement abruptly gives way to a far more bathetic display. Throughout Tori and Lokita, the Dardennes reprise concerns and condemnations familiar from decades of films made in the wake of the unceasing migrant crisis. Nevertheless, their film still quakes with an incensed and undeniable power, personified in the forms of two spiritual siblings who represent each other’s only refuge.