Ghosts stalk the abandoned neighborhoods of an unnamed Mexican city in writer-director Issa López’s fantasy-horror fable Tigers Are Not Afraid. But they are hardly its most sinister forces.
It’s ordinary men who abduct women and children, cursing loved ones to a life of unresolved grief. They leave behind a forgotten community of little survivors, kids who band together in what they call “gangs.” Led by adolescent runts like El Shine (Juan Ramón López), though, they’re more like Peter Pan and the Lost Boys, princes of an empty kingdom of rooftops and alleyways, some fated to never grow up. It’s through their young eyes that López casts a dark, magical-realist lens on the uncounted casualties of Mexico’s drug war: the children orphaned by it. But Tigers is more than a portrait of innocence lost. It is a tribute to storytelling, imagination, and to the purity of feeling that children so readily access. It grants their fear, joy, and rage equal dignity. And it is a singularly Mexican fairy tale, as lovely as it is haunting.
The film opens on 10-year-old Estrella (Paola Lara) on the last normal day of her life, just before a shooting at school leaves classes indefinitely suspended. A thin trail of blood snakes after her from the moment she sees a dead body in the street. It follows her home, where she finds her mother missing, and forks and slithers along the walls and floors, more menacing whenever she grows afraid or lonely. Her schoolteacher had handed her three broken pieces of chalk that day and called them “wishes,” in a desperate bid to comfort Estrella as shots rang out. When Estrella takes that chalk in hand and wishes for her mother’s return, she realizes the wishes manifest in grisly, unpredictable ways; as she later tells a little boy, they “come out wrong” and must be avoided unless there is no other choice.
Still, supernatural presences seem to cling just out of frame wherever Estrella goes, even after she leaves home and joins Shine’s crew. Her mother’s now-ragged voice, distant as if heard through a radio. Shadows and visions of hands reaching in the dark. These sequences mimic the sensation of scaring oneself into a panic in pitch-darkness, and that may be what Estrella is feeling; it’s left to us to determine whether her visions are real hauntings, or traumatized hallucinations. It barely matters. Estrella, like the other lost children of the city, processes the cruelty that has interrupted her life through allegory. With flashlights under their chins, they tell the stories of their lives through fantasy and horror, summoning larger-than-life figures like princes, warriors, and fearless tigers. It’s how they remind themselves who they are—not just street orphans, but heroes—and who they want to be.
The fantasy of the children’s inner worlds contrasts sharply, and at times painfully, with the grim reality around them. López strove to preserve authenticity in her rendering of their environment, and cast all non-actors in the children’s roles. (“It’s supposed to feel almost like a war documentary,” she has said in interviews.) She holds no punches in depicting the danger that pursues them—cartel members hunting down incriminating evidence about a powerful politician, which falls into Shine’s hands through a stolen phone—or the way institutions, including the police, fail to protect them. Yet the film is never more moving than when it lingers in that fantasy world, where Shine draws a tiger on a soccer ball, promising it will protect Estrella. Where the boys see an Elven palace in a decrepit old mansion and a school of koi fish is deemed a “zoo.”
López never visualizes the boys’ fantasies for us (we see only Estrella’s), urging us instead to use our own imaginations. Her young cast’s enthusiasm for make-believe makes it easy. Juan Ramón López, in particular, shoulders a startlingly adult blend of clear-eyed fury and wisdom as Shine; at times, he seems to cut the silhouette of a mini wandering samurai, aided by the loose sleeves of his jersey. And as Estrella, Paola Lara recalls the heroines of Pan’s Labyrinth and Spirited Away in her self-motivated evolution from helplessness to gritty resolve. It’s remarkable work from first-time actors (trained by Fatima Toledo, the coach who prepped City of God’s nonprofessional teen actors), directed to surprisingly tender effect for a film that also includes shocking bursts of violence.
There are shades of Stand By Me in Tiger’s melancholy and adolescent humor. López also cites fellow Mexican horror nerd Guillermo del Toro as an influence, and it shows. (Thanks to this film, she counts the director as a fan and co-producer now, too.) But Tigers Are Not Afraid is above all the work of an original voice, one willing to take unconventional risks. It may not always achieve the thematic coherence it aspires to, and it can get lost in the flutters of plastic bird wings come to life and CG-aided scares. Yet hers is a perspective worth hearing more from—and with Tigers coming to theaters this weekend and soon streaming on Shudder, that’s a message many more will soon hear.