Written by Issa López
Directed by Issa López
As I grow older, my ability to empathize with a film’s characters as well as allowing movies to affect me emotionally grows with each passing day. I don’t bemoan this. Rather, I welcome it with open arms. To have something hit me and leave an indelible mark is an event that is well worth celebrating for it shapes who I am as a person. That is why I love movies. Because their stories can teach me to be better than who I was yesterday.
Watching Issa López’s Tigers Are Not Afraid, I was struck by how much I relate to the children the film follows. No, I didn’t grow up in Mexico and have to live amongst the dangers of the drug war. But I did grow up in such a way that, at a very young age, I was essentially separated from my family, through no fault of their own. As a result, and much like Estrella (Lara), Shine (Ramón López), and the rest of the young crew, I was forced to grow up well before I should’ve had to.
In Tigers Are Not Afraid, Estrella, a young girl, joins a gang of four boys after her mother goes missing. Together, the five try to survive in decayed and forgotten ruins of crumbling buildings while avoiding a cartel who are desperate to get back a cellphone one of the boys has…and will do so at any cost.
As many others have already noted, it’s impossible to talk about this film without comparing it to the works of Guillermo del Toro. After all, Tigers Are Not Afraid shares the same recipe of a gritty world where horror is built upon reality and supernatural elements, be they fantastical or terrifying, can’t compare to those atrocities. Much like Ofelia in Pan’s Labyrinth, Estrella’s story is built upon a fairy tale, only she doesn’t seek it out like Ofelia does. Rather, she finds comfort in family, be it the memories of her mother or the company of the gang she is now a part of.
Beautifully shot, Tigers Are Not Afraid wonderfully marries the grimy, violent streets of the unnamed Mexican city and Estrella’s supernatural visions, which stay mostly in the background until the film’s third act. Like The Devil’s Backbone and J.A. Bayona’s The Orphanage, the horror here is more subdued and restrained, saving itself for when its impact will be felt the most.
I would be remiss if I were to fail in mentioning the fabulous acting of the children, each of whom emotes with sincerity and conviction. How they interact with one another shows, often without words, that they are calloused by life yet still seek joy in their childish ways. It’s a juxtaposition that makes certain events all the more heartbreaking.
Tigers Are Not Afraid is horror with heart. It’s a fantasy-imbued ghost story that lives in a world where dealing with the unknown is as normal as a bullet-ridden corpse laying just outside of a school.
Issa López’s Tigers Are Not Afraid will be spoken of in the same breath as The Orphanage and Pan’s Labyrinth while still being able to stand on its own. It’s a marvelous, devastating, important film.