Tigers Are Not Afraid unfolds in a world of hellish clashing worlds. It’s both a war zone and a playground, a blood-covered landscape of shadowy streets and rooftop hideaways where children run, laugh and play, even as they seek shelter from the terrible men who have turned them into orphans. And if you’ve stayed up with reports from Mexico for the last fifteen years, when the government initiated its military crackdown on the drug trade, this violent fictionalized dispatch from the front lines might initially strike you as all too grimly familiar.
But writer-director Issa López is fantasist as well as a realist, and she has the inspiration to refract the brutal atrocities of the drug war through the prism of a fairy tale: It carries a magical realist sensibility that has a cozy relationship with death. Winged insects and slithering reptiles burst from the nooks and crannies of Ana Solares’ production design. The graffiti on the walls have a habit of leaping to life, especially the growling tiger invoked by the film’s title. A thin, red trail of blood flows down streets and up stairs, winding its way through the narrative with stealth and purpose. The story’s young heroine, Estrella (a great Paola Lara), first notices that blood trail creeping across the walls of her home after an especially (though sadly not unusual) violent day at school. Estrella has already heard gunshots ring out near her classroom and passed by a fresh corpse on her way home, and the blood feels like a warning of more horrors to come. Though the worst may have already happened: Her beloved mother is nowhere to be found, and Estrella has little reason to doubt the neighborhood kids who tell her she was abducted and possibly killed by the cartel.
Estrella than sends out on a quest to find her mother, an adventure she undertakes with the help of her new impromptu family of orphaned street children led by the moody El Shine (Juan Ramón López), a little boy who acts like a macho gangster. He recently stole a gun an a cellphone from a cartel member named Caco (Ianis Guerrero) shortly before Estrella joined their little gang, and now Caco and his boss, El Chino (Tenoch Huerta), are hot on their tale to get them back. Tigers Are Not Afraid pulls no punches when it comes to violence against children, and El Chino and his gang no unease about offing little kids. And like many fairy-tale protagonist, Estrella has been granted three wishes, a gift that will reveal itself to be something of a curse as none of her desperate, well-intentioned requests plays out as she’d hoped or expected.
The fusion of historical trauma and magical realism in Tigers Are Not Afraid owes a clear debt to Guillermo del Toro — most clearly Pan’s Labyrinth — and its purpose, in this context, is not all that different: to blur the boundaries between reality and myth, and to illuminate a dark chapter of human history using the storybook archetypes of good and evil. And like Pan’s Labyrinth, Tigers Are Not Afraid is a child’s fable that is far too graphic and grim to be appreciated by children. Far from being a problem, the contradiction displays a certain integrity, a determination to use a young girl’s perspective to amplify rather than play down the horrors of war.
Throughout the film both the emotion and the horror might have taken still taken a more deeply rooted feel if the world of the film felt less hectic and more coherently realized, if the supernatural touched and occasional jump scares welled up organically from within rather than feeling smeared on. In pacing this thriller at such a breakneck speed (coming in a eighty-three minute runtime), López never quite gives it the dreamlike flow and propulsion it needs. The fidgety editing and shaky handheld camerawork often suggest a self-conscious approximation of gritty intensity rather than the real thing. But helming it all, Paola Lara gives a pretty remarkable performance, delivering a gaze that magnetizes every frame. Even at Estrella’s most fearful, her underlying courage is never in doubt, and she rightly owns the film’s moral center of gravity. Your heart can’t help but go out to her, even when you’re left feeling more like a sympathetic observer than a fully immersed companion. Though it struggles balancing its ambition, Tigers Are Not Afraid maintains as a work of bold, gentle imagination full of unexpected tenderness.