Tori (Pablo Schills, R) and Lokita (Joely Mbundu) struggle in Belgium. Photo courtesy of Sideshow and Janus Films
LOS ANGELES, March 20 (UPI) -- Tori and Lokita, in theaters Friday, is a bleak, but effective, drama. It's hardly a spoiler to suggest there are no happy endings, but just how dire it may get is eye-opening.
Lokita (Joely Mbundu) is applying for legal papers in Belgium, where her brother, Tori (Pablo Schils), lives legally in a children's shelter. Unfortunately, there are more than government forces threatening these siblings.
Lokita makes money working at Betim's (Alban Ukaj) Italian restaurant, which includes dealing marijuana for him after hours. The police stop Tori and Lokita randomly on the street, and the smugglers who brought them over keep demanding more money from them.
When the state denies Lokita's papers, she agrees to work at Betim's marijuana farm for three months, living onsite in a cubicle with no contact with Tori. Betim will get Lokita forged papers, but that essentially renders her an indentured servant.
Tori finds a way to sneak onto the marijuana farm to see Lokita, but it's no place for a child. It's no place for an adult, either, bringing into focus just what dire choices immigrants face in many countries.
Writer-directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne convey the fraught environment in which Tori and Lokita live.
No matter how much they pay, Tori and Lokita always will be in debt to someone, not just Betim and the smugglers. Lokita sends money to her family in Garoua, but even her mother acts like Lokita is holding out on her. It's never enough.
Everyone from Betim to the smugglers acts like Tori and Lokita's basic needs are such an inconvenience for them. Food and a box to put the food in, for example, is such a hassle out of Betim's day.
The consistency of inhumane treatment is stark. It would have to wear on even the strongest people.
Even when Lokita agrees to live at the farm for three months, that's not enough for Betim. He also wants to take advantage of her sexually.
He offers her more money, but that's irrelevant. She needs papers, not money, and it's just an excuse to justify demeaning her.
The threat of fire looms over the farm. Betim's men assure her it would only ignite one cubicle and probably not hers, as long as she cuts the power herself, as if that's reassuring.
Poor, sweet Tori wants to keep his sister's spirits up, but that only makes the viewer worry about the danger in which he's putting himself. The Dardennes already established several threats that Tori knows about, and of course, there are tons more of which the kids aren't even aware.
The story does suggest a universal phenomenon, though. Each world that tries to lay claim to Tori and Lokita implements its own set of rules to control people.
But, humans have free will and innate autonomy is going to challenge the rules, and potentially make things more dangerous for everyone. The state thinks it's going to enforce the law, but that only empowers criminals to take advantage of desperate immigrants.
The criminals think they can control their dependents down to their living quarters, but they still can't account for a child desperate to see his sister. Perhaps least effective of all is the children's shelter that thinks its curfews and rules will keep children in line.
As bleak as Tori and Lokita's story gets, there are glimpses of hope. A stranger helps Tori send money back home and two people at his shelter are nice to him.
But, most of the people portrayed in Tori and Lokita, outside the title characters, range from selfishly ambivalent to downright malicious.
The Dardennes empathize with Tori and Lokita, but pull no punches in depicting their ordeal. Hopefully, the film will elicit compassion for people in their situation in real life.
Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012. Read more of his work in Entertainment.