Tigers Are Not Afraid
2019, NR, 83 min. Directed by Issa López. Starring Paola Lara, Juan Ramón López, Hanssel Casillas, Rodrigo Cortes, Ianis Guerrero, Tenoch Huerta.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Sept. 6, 2019
Once upon a time, a girl was given three wishes. It's a simple, classic setup, the perfect fairy tale beginning. Yet that's where the fairy tale ends in Tigers Are Not Afraid, a sublime mixture of dark social realism and magical fantasy – social magical realism, if such a subgenre exists.
Estrella (Lara) is a young teen doing everything right. She pays attention in class, she works hard, she loves her mother: Yet none of that is enough to protect her from the random terrors of the gang-related violence that constantly shreds her small hometown, somewhere in Northern Mexico. When an outbreak of aggression shuts her school and causes her mother to disappear, suddenly Estrella is just another street kid, hanging out with Shine (López) and his lost boys. She's quiet and desperate, he is scarred inside and out. He has street smarts and the same dangerous instincts that drive the cruel grownups that lurk at the edges of their hiding places; she has nothing save for the three pieces of chalk – each representing a wish – that her teacher gave her to calm her as stray rounds from a gunfight ripped through the classroom.
Two years after a rapturous world premiere reception at Fantastic Fest 2017, writer-director Issa López's debut feature finally reaches wider audiences without losing an iota of its power. It's no surprise that Guillermo del Toro has become such an advocate for this film, as it's evocative of the melding of fantasy, childhood, and real-world darkness that he forged in two of his most meaningful works, The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth. Yet, unlike those period films, López does not grant herself or the audience the mercy of the softening lens of history. This is Mexico right now, and she depicts the grueling brutality of her young protagonists' lives with the same earnest honesty as Capernaum or Bicycle Thieves or (possibly most pertinently) Buñuel's Los Olvidados. At the same time, she seamlessly injects uncanny elements – most especially a trail of blood that flows in a precise line toward the future victims of the incessant violence that threatens to swallow everyone. Yet there is also a sense of the spirits warning and guarding Estrella and the boys, in forms mundane, gruesome, terrifying, and sweet.
What ensures that this is not del Toro-lite is that López doesn't have the characters walk into the uncanny as an escape from their nightmarish reality. Instead, the shadow realms intrude in ambiguous ways that never feel forced, that the fey and the dead could all be in Estrella's imagination but could equally be the otherworldly taking pity on these waifs. The broken childhoods of the characters (most especially López as Shine, the boy forced to grow up too fast) shattered by poverty and gangs and adults who are either absent, evil, or ground down themselves, are the victims; so even if their only salvation comes from the supernatural, maybe they're right to wish for it.