The movie opens with Lokita (Joely Mbundu) being interrogated by an official about her relationship with her “brother,” Tori (Pablo Schils), who is not her brother at all; they met on the boat to Europe, but maintaining the facade of being family will be crucial to obtaining papers for Lokita, who will then be able to take legitimate work and send more money to her family. (Tori, as a proven victim of persecution, has protected status.) In the meantime, struggling to pay their debt to human smugglers, Lokita and Tori work selling for drugs for a chef (Alban Ukaj), who spots them chump change for kickstarting the evening’s karaoke at the venue. He also uses money to pressure Lokita into performing sexual favors.
The warmth between Lokita and Tori, who helps her rehearse for further questioning by immigration officials, is at odds with the harrowing gauntlet that they must run every day. Their existence is a steady stream of struggles to scrape together cash, to avoid being hassled by police, to figure out whether there is a way to make money from the drugs themselves while cutting out the middle man. Yet as dangerous as Tori and Lokita’s ordeal gets, and as powerful and skilled as the filmmaking is, I couldn’t shake a feeling that “Tori and Lokita” represents the Dardennes playing it safe. The complaint that they’re repeating themselves has, admittedly, been raised about nearly every Dardennes picture since at least “L’Enfant,” which won the 2005 Palme d’Or. But apart from one startling moment of violence, their social observations here have ossified into something like a formula.
“Funny Pages” is the first writing-and-directing feature from Owen Kline, an actor perhaps most recognizable as the Jesse Eisenberg’s younger brother in “The Squid and the Whale.” Counting the Safdie brothers among its producers (and their sometime collaborator Sean Price Williams as its cinematographer), it has some of their scabrousness and interest in marginalized subcultures. But it also most obviously recalls Terry Zwigoff’s “Crumb” and “Ghost World,” in that it involves a protagonist, Robert (Daniel Zolghadri), who aspires to be a comic book artist.