Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Emotional Necessity

Tori and Lokita (2022) - Dardenne Tori and Lokita The Dardenne Brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc have been making social realist dramas since the 90s. With Tori and Lokita, they tell a heartbreaking tale of two immigrant children bonding over their traumatic experience and trying to survive in a foreign country. Their makeshift family is quite different from that of Kore-eda's films: if Kore-eda's characters bonded together because of economic necessities, Tori and Lokita's bonding is simpler and based on innate emotions first and foremost: the everyday violence and fear the immigrants face on all sides are quite real and immediate and their need for each other's presence in absence of adults is even greater.

It starts with a teenage girl Lokita (Joely Mbundu) being questioned at a panel hearing which will determine whether they will grant her the necessary papers to stay in Belgium. But her story doesn't quite add up to prove that she is indeed Tori (Pablo Schils)'s older sister. She is prone to panic attacks, and they have to stop the interview. Later we see that they are rehearsing their questions and answers together (Tori already has papers). While staying at a communal housing provided by authorities, the two are inseparable, sharing a bed together where Tori only falls asleep to Lokita's lullaby. They sing together at a restaurant for money and Lokita delivers weed to client. It's Betim, the restaurant's chef, who runs the drug business out of his kitchen in the basement, that she works for. With the African smugglers, who brought them first to Europe from Benin, constantly demanding money with threats of violence, and Betim asking sexual favors all the time, it's quite difficult for Lokita to send money home where mom and five siblings are dependent on her, and also subsist a living in an unforgiving foreign country as a child. But Lokita is insistent on Tori continuing his education and not get involved with Betim's business.

The point the Dardennes are driving home with the film is pretty clear. It's the shared trauma that bonds Tori and Lokita together as they met on the boat that took them to Europe. Their bond is quite simple to understand – going through horrendous hardships together thousands of miles from home. Their need for emotional support for each other is tremendous. Lokita's panic attacks and their need for seeing and talking to each other every day is well illustrated throughout the film.

Things get darker when Lokita agrees to work at a weed farm in a faraway undisclosed location, tending weed while locked in the facility for days at the promise of fake documents that will let her stay in the country. It’s a modern slavery at work. Tori's desire to be reunited with Lokita and his resourcefulness locates her. He sneaks in through the ventilation system of the compound, and they plan to rip the chef off of his game. But they get caught.

Tori and Lokita hits you hard. It's one of the most brutal and emotionally bare films the Dardennes ever directed. Mbundu and Schils are terrific as two young leads. The film addresses some uncomfortable truths about horrible immigration system and lack of support for refugees, especially the children, to survive and deal with the trauma.

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