When it comes to churning out acidic commentary on the new aspirational money culture, the movies have not been shy. They’ve been up-front in showcasing, and satirizing, how the rich aren’t just getting richer but making themselves role models in the process. (It’s Kardashian Nation; we just live in it.) Ruben Östland’s Cannes sensation “Triangle of Sadness” may be the most spectacular movie statement yet about the decadence of the 21st-century playpen elite. Yet that’s the fun, sexy part of our society’s increasingly from-the-top-down distribution equation. The tragic, essential part is where the concentration of wealth leaves just about everyone else: strapped, quietly desperate, trying to claw their way through a system that feels, more and more, like it wasn’t built for them.
“Tori and Lokita,” the new movie written and directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, is just as spectacular a statement as “Triangle of Sadness.” But it’s about what’s happening on the frayed opposite end of the economic spectrum. Tori (Pablo Schils) and Lokita (Joely Mbundu) are immigrant kids living on their own in an unnamed city in Belgium. They’re from Benin and Cameroon, and they’re passing themselves off as brother and sister. Tori, who’s 11, is as tough and resourceful as he is angelic-looking. (He knows how to use his looks to fool people.) Lokita is 16, but with her hair drawn into cornrows, she has a face that’s already sullen with adult worry and resignation; she’s like someone out of a Walker Evans photograph. And we can see why.
Lokita is trying to get her working papers, but the Belgian immigration officials aren’t buying her story about how she rescued Tori from an orphanage. The story isn’t true, and doesn’t sound true. Yet these two kids, who met on the boat coming over from West Africa, really are like brother and sister. They live together in a state facility, they look out for each other, and they’ve got an operation going, working for a chef, Betim (Alban Ukaj), who uses the restaurant he works in as a cover for the business of selling drugs. Tori and Lokita are his delivery people, dropping off small white bags of cannabis or cocaine at apartments as if they were making pizza deliveries. They also sing karaoke at the restaurant, doing a traditional song to get the crowd going, and it’s a touching emblem of their innocence.
Lokita has a plan: She wants to train to become a home health aid, at which point she and Tori will find an apartment. They’ll build a life. But to get there, the plan requires so much cash that it almost seems like a dream. Lokita, with the money they make from drug deliveries, has to keep paying off the corrupt church officials who brought her over (one of them resembles a Sunday-school teacher, but they talk like loan sharks). She has to send money to her mother (she has five siblings back in Cameroon), because that’s the whole reason she came over in the first place. And when the state approval for the working papers fails to come through, her only option is to get fake papers through Betim, who’s going to charge her 10,000 Euro. Betim also pays Lokita for sexual favors, which, as we see in several disturbing scenes, are scarcely voluntary and add to the crushing load of anguish of a girl who is doing whatever’s necessary to survive.
Working in their rigorously lyrical drama-as-documentary style, the Dardennes place the audience on the hamster wheel of Tori and Lokita’s lives, in a way that’s both harrowing and immersive. We experience, moment by moment, the characters’ daily lunge at cobbling together enough money to get by. Money is what the film is all about — in a sense, it’s the only thing it’s about. Yet the Dardennes, in the humanity of their austerity, aren’t being reductive. They recognize and refuse to shy away from the fact that money is life — or, at least, that life depends on it. For anyone watching who’s lucky enough to have enough of it, the mad desperate scramble for money in “Tori and Lokita” becomes as charged as a thriller and as bracing as a slap in the face.
To pay for her fake papers, Lokita agrees to take a job working for three months as the onsite gardener for Betim’s crop of marijuana plants. On the surface, that doesn’t sound too taxing, but in reality it proves to be a fast-break form of indentured servitude. She is driven, blindfolded, outside the city to an old industrial farm building, which has been elaborately rigged to be a windowless greenhouse. Once she’s inside the cramped, stifling interiors — the dark corridors thick with insulation, a cinder-block room with a dirty bed and a microwave — we realize the setting is going to be a bunker, a prison, and a place to go nuts with isolation. Lokita’s main job is to water the pot plants, which is easy, but with the SIM card removed from her phone (they can’t take a chance that she’ll reveal the location), she has no way to get in touch with Tori, her faithful blood brother, and she begins to unravel.
The heart of the movie unfolds after Lokita has come to this place, and it allows the Dardennes to execute some of the most purely suspenseful filmmaking of their career. After several parables that have felt phoned-in (“Young Ahmed,” “The Unknown Girl”), they are back in form. The resourceful Tori isn’t about to let Lokita languish, any more than she’s going to stop taking care of him. But once he stows away in Betim’s car and sneaks into the building, slipping through the air-tube hole, we realize that these kids are in over their heads. They’re wily scavengers, but they don’t think like criminals. At 88 minutes, “Tori and Lokita” builds in power without overstaying its welcome. It’s a story one could imagine Vittoria De Sica telling about the age of economic injustice.