Film Review: Tigers Are Not Afraid

A Chilling Anthem for the Lost Voices of Mexico

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Tigers Are Not Afraid, the new film from writer and director Issa López, is a haunting blend of fairy tale and horror. Bracing and fearless in its magical realism, the film navigates a nameless Mexican city in the throes of gang warfare and violence. Anchored by a stunning and precocious young cast, Tigers Are Not Afraid is a confident effort by López that combines affecting storytelling with a poignant message. Minor spoilers ahead…

With tinges of Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone and Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund’s City of God, Issa López’s Tigers Are Not Afraid is a fantasy and horror-tinted tribute to the lost voices of Mexico. Making its way through the festival circuit, the Mexican director’s third feature-length film has been receiving high praise from the likes of Stephen King and del Toro himself. And although the film is singularly a Latinx story (in an industry and genre that could use much more of its kind), its meditation on love, loss, and death extrapolates to a broader and more universal appeal, undoubtedly pulled from a very personal place for López.

Tigers Are Not Afraid may have been primarily shot in Mexico City’s Azcapotzalco, but the film’s setting remains nameless for its runtime: riddled with gang warfare and dangerous streets, the anonymous locales of Tigers are an everyplace stand-in for the more difficult side of Mexico. The story’s title card paints a harrowing picture, recounting the hundreds of thousands of dead or missing as a result of gang and drug violence, emphasizing the fact that “there are no numbers for the children the dead and the missing have left behind.” Counted among said children is ten year-old schoolgirl Estrella (Paola Lara). After a close call at her school with a gang-related shooting, she comes home to find her mother gone and her house empty. Armed with three magical wishes bestowed upon her by her teacher during the close-call at school, Estrella is forced from her empty home by a mournful ghost - an ominous portent that bodes poorly for her missing mother. Wandering the gang-infested streets, she happens upon a group of orphaned boys led by the hard-nosed El Shine (Juan Ramón López), and eventually becomes embroiled in a dangerous cat-and-mouse game with the Huascas, the drug-running thugs that roam the violent city and kill without compunction.

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“With tinges of del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone and Meirelles and Lund’s City of God, Issa López’s Tigers Are Not Afraid is a fantasy and horror-tinted tribute to the lost voices of Mexico.”

Tigers Are Not Afraid is a film single-handedly elevated by the strength of its child actors. Paola Lara’s Estrella is the perfect blend of wounded vulnerability and proactive gumption, but it’s Juan Ramón López’s captivating performance as Shine that dazzles the most throughout the narrative. Fiercely street-smart yet loyal and compassionate, Shine teeters on the precipice of being swallowed whole by the dark world around him - a prime example of how a good kid can be pressed into violent gang-life. The group, including the newly inducted Estrella, enjoys a whimsical Lost Boys-esque chemistry as they navigate the city, but where there are moments of fun and whimsy, darkness is never far behind, and López is sure to make that reality clear. In Tigers, our heroes are children, but the stakes are nonetheless high, and the film never pulls its punches when it comes to the mortality of our kid protagonists: death is an ever-looming fact of life on the streets of Mexico, and it can come for anyone at anytime.

Visually, Tigers Are Not Afraid is a lo-fi feast, even if its technical reach is sometimes beyond its grasp. Its nameless city is as much a character as its human roster, with hollowed-out ruins and graffiti that literally come alive in both celebration and grief. One of the film’s grandest locales, an abandoned theater, is a wonder to behold with its captivating juxtapositions: Koi fish swim in a muddied and dirty pond, and its bombed-out interiors cast a lonely shadow on a long-forgotten majesty. Tigers also fires on all cylinders when its horror elements are on full display. From the serpentine trail of blood that follows Estrella everywhere, to the story’s truly terrifying ghosts (plastic-shrouded corpses that lurch to life, discarded by the Huascas), the film revels in a dread-soaked atmosphere, amplified by some stunning effects work. When it comes to the more fantastical elements, however, it fares a little worse. With its mournful specters, living graffiti, and chalk-piece wishes, Tigers Are Not Afraid establishes a confident reality of profound magical realism, but when it starts throwing in animated stuffed animals and tiny dragons, they become superfluous additions that neither the budget nor the narrative economy can afford. It’s a minor quibble in an otherwise impeccable film, and the only thing that didn’t quite work for me. Technical and thematic hiccups aside, however, the film is a touching symphony that harmonizes performances to setting, shining a much-needed light on an oft-overlooked corner of the world.

I had the fortunate pleasure of attending the IFC Center premiere of Tigers Are Not Afraid, accompanied by a Q&A with director Issa López afterwards. From her short time on stage answering questions, you could tell her passion and enthusiasm for the project. From her childhood experience of losing her own mother, to the importance of Latinx representation, to the film lending a voice to the lost people of Mexico, Tigers culminates as López’s ultimate labor of love. It also happens to be the next great horror-fantasy film, a fearless movie with indie roots that also tells a profound story long marginalized by history.

GRADE: A-