Telling the story of a childhood marked by poverty and trauma is an incredibly delicate task. Focus too intently on the grim and gritty nature of a child’s everyday struggle, you risk creating and exploiting a one-dimensional subject of pity; gloss over the hardships in favor of what makes the kid just like any other, and you succumb to sickly-sweet platitudes and dangerous misrepresentation.
‘Tigers Are Not Afraid’ (Vuelven in Spanish), the latest project from Mexican writer-director Issa López, joins the ranks of recent films that handle this seemingly impossible task with care and attention. Not unlike ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ or ‘The Florida Project,’ ‘Tigers Are Not Afraid’ blends stark realism and immediate political commentary with a sense of childlike wonder, bringing hope to the darkest of places. At times, it can be easy to see the film’s gears turning as it jumps between tones and genres, but the final product works enough magic to make you forget what you saw behind the curtain.
‘Tigers’ follows Estrella (Paola Lara), a ten-year-old Mexican girl whose town is plagued by drug violence. The daily background of murders and disappearances breaks into the forefront when Estrella’s school is besieged by crossfire from the Huascas, cartel leaders. Her teacher doesn’t seem surprised or even scared, but weary. How many times has this happened before? How many times will it happen again? In an effort to calm her students, she continues her lesson on fairy tales and hands Estrella three pieces of chalk, which she deems her “three wishes.” So is born the princess of the film’s dark fairy tale.
Upon returning home that afternoon, Estrella’s mother is nowhere to be found. Our heroine is left alone with nothing but photos and the mysterious, malevolent trail of blood that has followed her from the crime scene outside her school. Lonely and petrified, Estrella uses one of her wishes to bring her mother back—but everyone who has read a fairy tale knows that wishes come with strings attached. Faced with the ghost of her mother and a host of horrors that seem intent on taking her with them, Estrella flees her home and ends up on the street, where she meets a gang of young boys orphaned by the same violence. Their ensuing bond is as uplifting as it is precarious, and Estrella’s presence sets off a dangerous chain of events that brings the children closer to their demons than they had ever been in nightmares.
From its magical-realist horror framework to its brave young female lead, ‘Tigers Are Not Afraid’ invites obvious comparison to the work of Guillermo del Toro, ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ in particular. Del Toro has expressed his enthusiasm for López’s film, and announced at Guadalajara Film Festival his plans to produce her next project.
Despite this clear connection between the Mexican writer-directors, ‘Tigers Are Not Afraid’ never feels like an imitation of something seen before, nor like a script stolen off del Toro’s desk. López’s monsters aren’t works of elaborate fantasy, but elevated distortions of the everyday horrors that plague Estrella. The ghosts of her mother and other victims appear otherworldly as they attempt to breathe through the plastic their bodies were wrapped in for disposal. An animated trail of blood guides and warns Estrella as she travels from one place to another. Graffiti drawings and stuffed animals even spring to life as benevolent forces that make some of the real-world horror easier to grapple with, both for the children and for the audience. The only inexplicable creation appears to be an indiscriminate dark force, which takes the shape of small metallic bats and dragons which pass in and out of Estrella when she is most fearful.
López, who has previously directed women-led comedies like ‘Casi Divas,’ is clearly new to horror. While she attempts to tackle too many horror genre elements at once, it comes at no detriment to the the film’s heart and soul: the adventures of the gang as they try to live out their childhoods, not just survive them. The boys tell each other bedtime stories, bicker over stolen cell phones and invite Estrella to dance to music videos. They’re witty, often laugh-out-loud funny, and bring regular levity to an otherwise dark film. With no family left to look out for them, they’re also fiercely protective of one another—resolute leader Shine (Juan Ramón López), no older than eleven, tells the younger boys to eat their vegetables and to be quiet when in danger.
In a particularly wonderful sequence, the group finds an abandoned “palace” that was once occupied by gang leaders, which was rumoured to contain a zoo and a soccer field, among other luxuries. The zoo turns out to be an overturned fish tank, the soccer field a basket of balls and some netting—but the children find wonder and joy in the dilapidated scenery. One of the boys even does a ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ bit with an umbrella as rainwater pours through a hole in the roof.
‘Tigers’ wouldn’t survive without the incredibly strong performances of its young cast, most of whom hadn’t acted in film before. While the violence of adults frames the narrative onscreen, its the hopes, fears and actions of children that make it worth watching. Although the film’s ending veers into a sentimentality and ‘perseverance porn’ that feels unfit for the rest of the story, it’s ambiguous enough to allow for open interpretation—something I quite appreciate, and others may not. If anything, the final image of the tiger that gives the film its name is a stunning visual, one that perfectly captures its themes of wonder, majesty and survival in the face of violence and trauma.