With Tigers Are Not Afraid, writer/director Issa López has crafted an emotionally beautiful fairytale, tangled in the horrific underworld of cartel violence in Mexico.
Tigers Are Not Afraid begins with a title card that provides the tragic, sobering facts of the drug war. Since its beginning in 2006, 160,000 people have been killed and 53,000 have disappeared in Mexico. There are no numbers for the children they’ve left behind.
The film follows a young girl, Estrella (Paola Lara), as she returns home from school to find her mother missing. She soon joins with a group of four orphans – not unlike Wendy and the Lost Boys – and they form their own gang to care and watch out for each other while evading violent gangsters.
Tigers Are Not Afraid brings a heartfelt magic to a dark world by giving Estrella the power of three wishes. As each wish is granted, the twisted results weave an important thread into the stunning tapestry of the film’s story.
For a film that is so deeply rooted in the wonder, fear, and delightful logic of children, it’s vital to have an incredible cast to carry it through. López cast five children with no previous acting experience. In a brilliant move by López, they shot in chronological order and the children were never shown the full script, so their pure, raw emotion is beautifully authentic.
The children’s performances are incredibly honest and absolutely wonderful. Their happy, playful moments are an utter joy to watch, and their sadness and fear is completely heartbreaking.
Juan Ramón López as gang leader El Shine is particularly mesmerizing. There’s an emotional complexity in his performance that projects maturity far beyond his young age. He’s mastered the art of stillness and communicates volumes with just the look in his eyes. This kid is impressive.
Part of the brilliance of Tigers Are Not Afraid lies in López’s understanding of the young characters and the way children interpret and rationalize things. In one scene, we hear the kids describe the gruesome, over-the-top methods of the Huascas (the local, particularly sinister gang). Shortly after, audio from a news report playing in the background provides a far more accurate description of their criminal activity.
It’s a moment that stands out to the adult viewer, reminding you of the dramatic ways your imagination would fill in situational blanks as a child. We would jump to the most logical conclusion in a time when our logic was full of elaborate, fantastical ideas.
Other times, these youthful interpretations are far more optimistic. The children marvel at the possibilities of found objects; they make a dilapidated building into a magnificent home, full of opportunity and beauty.
At its heart, Tigers Are Not Afraid is about a loss of innocence. The reality of a constant potential for danger is never lost on these children, but because it has been and continues to be such a normal part of their lives, they adapt. As children do. They see the darkness in the world but still continue to reach for the light.
Supernatural elements blend with the gritty, harsh reality of the story to paint a rich, magical world. Ghostly apparitions – victims of gang violence – are not graceful, ethereal beings. They are full of tragic rage. It’s easy to feel Estrella’s fear when she’s confronted by these horrific specters.
Other moments have a warm, fairytale quality that lifts your heart in a swell of emotion. This elaborate dreamscape is held in a delicate balance that López has perfected. She makes it look so effortless and easy that it’s as natural as breathing.
Tigers Are Not Afraid deserves to be ranked in the highest echelon, among films like The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth (it’s worth noting that Guillermo Del Toro was such a fan that he’s announced that he will be producing a film for López).
It’s beautiful in every sense of the word, yet fully embraces its own darkness. There’s so much that could be said about this film, but instead, I urge you to see it for yourself. Nothing else could do it justice.
Check out the trailer and poster below, and click here to read about the 4 other films I cannot wait to see at Toronto After Dark Film Festival.