★★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★ A dark fantasy of survival, remembrance, and revenge. A spellbinding and heartfelt Mexican offering, full of brilliant little details.
Directed by Issa Lopez
Tigers are not afraid opens in a classroom where the teacher asks her students to write a fairy tale about a princess, a castle, tigers, 3 wishes, and ghosts as the elements of a story for them to compose. It ALSO opens with the grim statistic that in Mexico, 160,000 people have been killed, with 53,000 having disappeared since 2006 due to the drug trade, and the gangs that profit from it. As our lead protagonist, Estrella (Paola Laura) begins to write her story, the most horrifying situation in the world today breaks out… gunfire in a school. Her teacher gives her three sticks of chalk for her three wishes… and the fantasy begins.
We discover that the violence at the school is the work of a local human slave trade ring, the gang Los Huascas, and then we find that at some point Estrella’s mother has been abducted. Eventually, she ends up having to abandon her home, hungry and lonely, and finds a community of Mexican-Dickensian ragamuffins who are squatting in the shanties of Mexico City. This group of lost boys have also lost their parents to the gangs, and despite cussing and posturing, are still very much little boys. The dynamic of having the tween-ish Estrella in their mix is like having a young Auntie take care of them.
A good portion of the dynamic of the movie is the relationship of the leader of these boys, Shine (Juan Ramón López), who feels his grip over what had been his charges slipping, with the appearance of “The Chick”. It’s a lovely pairing, and if you want your protagonists in the sturdy but sympathetic mold, these two absolutely bring it. Nested within the horror is a coming of age movie and one where a boy needs to cede power to a slightly more mature, and ultimately more-driven girl. Particularly endearing is watching the boys bring Estrella into their jump around dance at the campfire, free of any adolescent anxieties, and pure childish glee. WC Fields famously noted that directors should never work with animals or children. Too difficult, and too easy for a movie to get dragged down by stiff or erratic performances. Here, the children shine. You really root for them, and they have everything stacked against them.
The horror comes in two major forms. The gangsters, who are protected by, and controlled by a local powerful politician, and the ghost of Estrella’s mother, often covered in plastic wrap and soaked in blood and bile. It is the in the little fantasy elements where director Issa Lopez really shines. The fantasy elements supplement the storyline, and do not dominate it, letting the kids be the focus of your attention. But the animated stuffed tiger when he shows up is a wonderful touch, and the REAL tiger when he shows up is majestic. Lopez also uses a beautiful metaphor of a bird bracelet to symbolize the mother and daughter bond for Estrella and a defining MacGuffin. And, I particularly love the use of an animated trail of blood as a tracking device. This is Lopez’s first horror film and her third effort as a feature director, and I would love to see her stay in the genre, she has a knack for good storytelling with fantastical touches if this film is an indicator.
The only knock I have on this film is that it is never established WHY the gang was abducting these people. It was just a looming threat but without a little proper context. I felt like Los Huascas was an environmental threat rather than a more villainous threat as I could never quite put my finger on the rationale for the gang. Were they holding these people for ransom? The sex trade? If so, why would they kill off their prisoners? I needed a little more there.
In the end, though, I found this an absolutely beautiful tale. A good comparable film would be Pan’s Labyrinth. City of God meets Alice in Wonderland meets Oliver Twist would be another way to think of it. If violence against children disturbs you, you won’t want to see this film. It is not, however as brutal and horrifying as the non-horror City of God or Beasts of No Nation, so those of reasonable stomach fortitude should be able to handle this. The fantastical elements of this film, plus the sweetness of the surviving children do not let the film go down the path of ten-mile-stare PTSD children. It is, however, a melancholy endeavor, and the whole situation is pretty grim.
Tigers Are Not Afraid is playing at the Popcorn Frights Film Festival, in Fort Lauderdale on Monday 8/13 at 7:00 PM. If you happen to see it coming to a festival near you, do yourself a favor and go catch it! This movie is not rated, but it would probably be Rated R… but it would be appropriate for mature teenagers to watch.