A dark fairy tale about a gang of five children trying to survive the horrific violence of the cartels and the ghosts created every day by the drug war.
Issa Lopez’s Tigers Are Not Afraid takes place in a seamless world of juxtapositions, as it is both a horrific war zone and a playground for the characters that inhabit it. Beginning with some stark statistics on the dead and missing due to the current drug war, it molds reality with the surreal, and the grim nature of the current climate with the fantastical elements of Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth.
I bring up Del Toro right away since the similarities will be pointed too immediately. Already signed onto produce Lopez’s next movie (and a werewolf movie to boot!), theirs is a collaboration that seemed destined ever since the trailer for this movie dropped.
Transitioning seamlessly from those harsh opening statistics to a classroom learning of fairytales, Lopez immediately draws us into the world of our main protagonist Estrella (Paolo Lara) as she discusses a fairytale about a prince and a tiger. However, during this tale, the cartels guns start blaring outside, and the world of the cartels abruptly collide with Estrella to set off a fantastically complex chain of events.
After Estrella joins a street gang who happens to have stolen something from one of the Huascas (cartel members), the group go on a grim quest to seek vengeance against their situation, and the people who have forced them into it.
Right from the get-go, Lopez establishes the town in which these characters live – a town of which we never discover the name of – as a grim environment, not fit for children. One of the most effective scenes actually takes place as Estrella walks home from school. An innocent, innocuous thing that we all did as children, except in this world, she turns a corner to see an assassinated man being covered with a sheet by the police. It’s a simple scene, but will likely ultimately be the scene I remember most from this movie. The curiosity, yet slight indifference to the act by Estrella makes the scene all to casual, emphasizing that this is just another day on the streets with the drug war.
Tigers Are Not Afraid is ultimately a horror-fantasy about five children trying to survive against circumstances they have no control of. Haunted by her mother (quite literally), as well as the mystery of her mother’s disappearance, Estrella and the gang use fantasy to escape their current reality. This is a bleak film, but that’s not to say there aren’t moments that shine through to show and emphasize the bond these children develop, despite the grim backdrop of what’s taking place around them. Small skits that recreate events, and storytelling amongst the group all emphasize fantasy as a way to escape their trauma, and the script smartly utilizes this to develop its characters.
A script like this could possibly fall flat without decent acting, but the child actors here amazingly hold their own and even carry the film’s less successful moments on their shoulders. As Shine, Juan Roman Lopez offers a heart-breakingly defiant performance of someone unhappy with the cards he was dealt, while Paolo Lara as Estrella takes you on a journey from helpless orphan to self-assured street kid.
If there’s anything to pick at in the movie, it could possibly be the movies scares. Heavily utilizing a J-horror aesthetic that’s all too familiar these days, the ghosts featured in the movie increasingly rely on choppy movements to create tension, with a slightly bizarre scene with a hand in a noodle cup seeming out of a place in a more elevated horror narrative. It’s not the tension isn’t there, it just seems stilted, and I would struggle to actually call this a ‘scary’ horror movie.
Overall, despite one or two small issues, Tigers Are Not Afraid is a phenomenal debut from Issa Lopez, and with her upcoming collaboration with Del Toro now set, she is clearly someone who has the potential to bring back the werewolf genre to its peak.
A truly unique blend of the realist and the fantastical that hasn’t been seen since Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, Lopez has created a grim, yet hopeful fairytale, that manages to be topical despite its fantasy elements.
Tigers Are Not Afraid is now available exclusively to stream on Shudder.