Review: Suspenseful and wrenching, ‘Tori and Lokita’ is the Dardenne brothers’ best in years

On public transport, a young woman wraps an arm protectively around a boy's shoulders.
Joely Mbundu and Pablo Schils as the title Belgian immigrants in “Tori and Lokita.”
(Cannes Film Festival)

There’s a scene near the end of “Tori and Lokita,” Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s strongest work in nearly a decade, that illustrates the difference — the chasm, really — between empathy and identification. Twelve-year-old Tori (Pablo Schils) and 17-year-old Lokita (Joely Mbundu), African-born immigrants who have made their way to a bustling Belgian city, are running for their lives, as they have been nearly all movie long. Injured and exhausted, Lokita makes her way to a remote stretch of road and flags down a passing car. The driver slows down, fixes her with a concerned stare and then, sizing up without understanding the situation, promptly drives away.

Our empathy with Tori and Lokita by this point is total, but I think the Dardenne brothers, without wagging their fingers too emphatically about it, want us to see that driver vanishing into the distance and admit that at least some of our identification lies with her. The moment passes in a flash, but the implication lingers as vividly as anything in this swift, urgent and palpably furious movie. We lose something when, whether out of self-preservation or ignorance or indifference, we turn away from the suffering of others. And the Dardennes, occupying their usual zone between clear-eyed moral parable and rough-hewn realist thriller, rebuke this apathy the best way they know how, by telling a story we can scarcely turn away from.

For your safety

The Times is committed to reviewing theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the CDC and local health officials.

One of the unifying qualities of their much-acclaimed work — and from “La Promesse” (1997) and “The Son” (2002) to “L’Enfant” (2005) and “Two Days, One Night” (2014), you can’t really go wrong with any of them — is their ability to pinpoint essential truths about a character’s life within a narrow time frame and a uniquely fraught set of circumstances. Tori and Lokita may be imaginary, but there’s an uncanny truthfulness to nearly every moment we spend in their company, a sense that their lives are unfolding within, but also beyond, the camera’s purview. The Dardennes sketch in a few details in passing — Lokita emigrated from Benin, Tori from Cameroon — but trust our imagination and curiosity to fill in the rest. We believe in Tori and Lokita, in part, because there is much about them we’ll never know.


It’s significant that the movie opens with an invasive, unnerving closeup of Lokita as she anxiously stumbles her way through a series of lies. She’s being questioned by the Belgian authorities about her relationship with Tori, who was accused of being a “sorcerer child” in Cameroon and has been granted political asylum here. Hoping to attain refugee status herself, Lokita claims that she and Tori are siblings separated years earlier but happily reunited during their journey overseas. The particulars may have been fabricated, but in every way that counts, the Dardennes suggest, Lokita is telling the truth. The bond that unites her and Tori, forged under mysterious but surely harrowing conditions, is far thicker than blood.

A boy and a young woman holding microphones smile at each other.
A sibling-like bond exists between the characters played by Pablo Schils and Joely Mbundu in “Tori and Lokita.”
(Sideshow and Janus Films)

They spend almost every moment together at the children’s shelter where they sleep and also at the Italian restaurant whose owner, Betim (a chillingly banal Alban Ukaj), uses them as couriers in his drug operation. Their wages consist of a few measly euros and leftover focaccia, though Betim does throw Lokita some extra cash after he sexually abuses her in private. Outside the restaurant, Lokita is regularly harassed by her traffickers, extortionists masquerading as local church workers who steal her money before she has the chance to send it home to her family. Locked in cruel cycles of debt and servitude, Lokita dreams of a better life; she longs to secure her papers, find steady work and make a home for herself and Tori.

That dream, elusive as it is, flickers wistfully into view at crucial moments of respite, notably when Tori and Lokita sing karaoke at the restaurant in an effort to warm up the crowd. It’s their most pleasant job and the movie’s loveliest moment: As their voices sweetly blend, Tori stares lovingly up at Lokita, while she smiles down protectively at him. They’ll take turns protecting and saving each other over the course of the movie. You can tell they’ve had a lot of practice already.

So when Lokita is sent to work at a secret cannabis factory for three months, in a sweltering hot room with no company or contact with anyone apart from Betim’s pitiless associates, it’s Tori who leaps boldly into action. The steps he takes to find and be with Lokita, to bring some warmth and comfort to her ordeal, show astonishing pluck and resourcefulness; they also lead to passages of breath-sapping suspense and quick, brutish violence. While the Dardennes are rightly extolled for their low-key artistry and philosophical depth, it isn’t pointed out often enough that they continue to make some of the most gripping action movies around.

A boy in hiding peers through a screen in a wall.
Bravery carries Pablo Schils’ Tori through a hellish existence.
(Sideshow and Janus Films)

The formal devices that brought the filmmakers to international prominence decades ago — the restless, off-center camerawork (here by Benoît Dervaux), the jagged editing (by Marie-Hélène Dozo), the absence of nondiegetic music — have long since ceased to feel like devices. That’s partly because they have been so fully absorbed into the tradition of 21st century realist filmmaking and partly because they feel like natural points of entry into the lives of characters who are constantly on the move, who scarcely have a moment to breathe.

Tori may be small, but we see, in Schils’ physically nimble performance, what a sadly necessary advantage that can be when it comes to hiding in dark corners and squeezing through tight passages. Whether he’s racing across a busy street or pedaling like mad on his two-wheeler, Tori is spiritual kin to several fast-moving youths from earlier Dardennes movies (especially “Rosetta” and “The Kid With a Bike”), who run as if their life depends on it because it usually does. But unlike some of those other protagonists, Tori and Lokita notably aren’t confronted with a sudden crisis of conscience as they struggle to survive and stay together. Their options are too limited, their worlds too closed off; it’s as if they can’t even afford the burden of a moral dilemma.

The unremitting bleakness of their ordeal feels shockingly blunt even coming from the Dardennes, who, despite their rejection of sentimentality and uplift, have always maintained a sincere belief in the possibility of redemption. Without disclosing what happens, that possibility is suspended here as the Dardennes follow their characters’ story to its logical, unadorned and thoroughly devastating end. Some might see this as an active denial of Tori and Lokita’s dramatic agency; still others might accuse the Dardennes, ludicrously, of exploiting their characters in the name of art. But I think that the filmmakers’ pessimism is inseparable from their compassion and that their compassion is inseparable from their rage.

That rage has many targets, some of which hover over this story in the abstract — the migrant crisis, anti-Black racism, crime and poverty, bureaucratic intransigence, the innate tendency of systems and individuals to prey on the young and vulnerable in their midst — and none of which are limited to the Belgian towns and cities where these filmmakers make their remarkable discoveries. The Dardennes are too honest to conceal their despair at the state of the world. They also know that the voicing of that despair can be its own small expression of hope.

‘Tori and Lokita’

Not rated
In French with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes
Playing: Starts March 24 at Landmark Nuart, West Los Angeles