Review by Sean Boelman
Belgian filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are acclaimed for their ability to make highly realistic dramas about important social issues. Their newest film, Tori and Lokita, explores the refugee crisis in a way that is harrowing and devastating — as if one would expect anything less from them.
The movie follows two young refugees who pose as siblings in the streets of Belgium in an attempt to survive the extremely harsh reality of their situation. To no one’s surprise, everything is not peaches and cream for the duo, as they go through a series of stressful and devastating experiences while trying to maintain their status.
The Dardennes are known for making movies that are extraordinarily on anger, and they have gone on record saying that this is their “angriest” film yet. Admittedly, Tori and Lokita isn’t likely to be as incendiary or controversial as some of their more recent work (such as Young Ahmed) because it opts for a more depressing tone.
Indeed, the best way to describe this movie’s tone is something more akin to the work of Ken Loach than what we might used to be seeing from the Dardennes — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The filmmakers appeal to the audience’s emotions by absolutely ripping their hearts out with an ending that will stick with viewers for quite a long time.
If there is a downfall to this approach, it is the movie’s predictability. It’s clear where this story has to end for the Dardennes to be able to make their point, leaving viewers waiting with dread as they know in their gut what is going to happen next. And yet, even though the film lacks the shock value of some of their other work, it’s still staggeringly effective.
Of course, a big part of what makes the movie work so well is the Dardennes’ signature realism. The Dardennes shoot the film almost as if it was a verité documentary, with very intimate, rough cinematography. The emphasis that the filmmakers put on grounding the movie ensures that it feels authentic, even when the narrative beats feel like they are in service of the themes.
To further accentuate the film’s realism, the Dardennes cast two non-actors in the leading roles, and they both do a phenomenal job. Mbundu Joely is fantastic as the older of the two sibling figures, giving a turn that seems mature beyond her years — fitting, given what the character is put through — but the quietly devastating turn of Pablo Schils will leave viewers feeling affected.
Tori and Lokita is somehow one of the more restrained movies by the Dardennes despite also being their angriest. The filmmakers have once again proven to have an uncanny finger on the zeitgeist of society, and delivered a necessary — if overt — commentary on one of the most pressing issues we face today.
Tori and Lokita is now playing in theaters.