You can pretty much bet that whenever the Dardenne brothers show up with a new film in Cannes, it will walk away with some sort of prize. That has been the case since 1999 when their first competition film, Rosetta, swooped in at the last minute and won the Palme d’Or and Best Actress. They won a second Palme in 2005 for The Child, the Grand Jury Prize in 2011 for Kid with a Bike, Screenplay in 2008 for Lorna’s Silence and Director in 2019 for Young Ahmed. No matter what the jury, the Dardennes continue to impress, yet none of their films has brought them an Oscar nomination. Their 2011 pic Two Days, One Night did get a surprise Best Actress nomination for Marion Cotillard, but that has been it.
The Belgian brothers are a good bet to be in the Cannes winners circle again this year with Tori and Lokita, an irresistible and deeply affecting tale of two West African immigrant adolescents trying to pass themselves off as brother and sister in order to get working papers in Belgium’s tough immigration system. It puts a light on the poorest of us, two kids — 12-year-old Tori and 16-year-old Lokita — who must find a way to survive while dealing with smugglers, black-market jobs, heartless bureaucrats, devastating living conditions and a stacked deck against them.
If this sounds like a total downer, in many ways it is, and it will get you angry, but the Dardennes give this the feeling of a suspense thriller, a nail-biter in parts, that I have never experienced in any of their previous films. Remarkably, they have found a new filmmaking groove here, a renewed vibrancy, and that in and of itself is heartening news — not that they ever have to worry about making the cut at Cannes. It just so happens they really deserve this slot, as well as the eight-minute standing ovation the filmmakers and their stars received at the Grand Lumiere Theatre on Tuesday afternoon.
Determined to keep this as authentic as possible, the writer-directors cast two non-professionals in the title roles, and boy did it pay off. Pablo Schils as young, scrappy, loyal and loving Tori, and Joely Mbundu as the determined and heartbreaking Lokita deliver extraordinary performances on the level of any actor with a film in Cannes in this year.
Plot-wise. we discover that in order to pass muster at the immigration office, they have come up with a scheme to pass off Lokita as Tori’s sister. He has been accepted, but she is likely to be turned back unless she can gain refugee status — a tall order.
Tori will stop at nothing to help her as he claims she saved his life on the boat crossing (they come from Cameroon and Benin). When officials finally demand a DNA test to prove they are siblings, they have to find another way to make money and stay in Belgium in order to get enough to send back home to their families, pay off the couple who arranged for their travel and live themselves.
They find some work singing karaoke for customers in a restaurant, and then hook up with Betim (Alban Ukai), a cook and criminal who pays and shelters Tori for drug deliveries and odd jobs. He also sets up Lokita in a miserable job — locked out of sight, getting a bed and a promise of trumped-up working papers serving as a caretaker of a secret illegal cannibis operation in a dreary, ultra-humid abandoned shack, taking away her phone and her ability to communicate with Tori. Bottom line is that she and her best friend Tori know they have to find a way to get her out, and that is when the action starts.
What makes this situation so upsetting is you know these “unaccompanied minors” who are let loose without family in Europe (and obviously other countries and borders) are terrified, scrapping around to do everything for a better life but having society shut their doors and turn their backs. This movie puts a human face on statistics and is a devastating indictment on the system, but at the same time, it’s a story of true friends with their backs against the wall. These two kids will break your heart, both never making a false move.
There should be an award alone for the casting director. The Dardennes have proven to be especially good at getting remarkable performances from young people, and this is no exception. With the upcoming Lukas Dhont film, Close, also promising to focus on themes of young friendships and life-changing moments, this Cannes festival is turning out to be a very good one for Belgium, and yet another triumph for Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.
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