How Issa López’s Tigers Are Not Afraid has played some fourteen film festivals and still doesn’t have distribution outside Mexico is astonishing. Her spectacularly moving childhood journey bursts with Guillermo del Toro parallels, corpse-risen terror and emotional hard-knocks that’ll both singe and chill your core. A snapshot of Mexico’s darkest drug cartel infection told entirely from a minor’s perspective with uncompromising bleakness and fable-fancy spirit. Themes of young lives being failed on a daily basis, and how “survival” means something unthinkably different south of the border.
This is a movie that demands to be seen, heard, and discussed as often as possible – that’s a promise.
Young Paola Lara stars as Estrella, a Mexican girl who so desperately wishes her missing mother would return home. She has no family, no means of living, and that’s when she meets a local street-boy named Shine (Juan Ramón López). His gang of orphaned equals live on rooftops and hide from dangerous abductors because once you’re taken by the cartel, you don’t return. Caco (Ianis Guerrero) plays right-hand to the area’s kingpin and hopeful elected official El Chino (Tenoch Huerta), who finds himself in hot water when Shine jacks the thug’s cell phone. This is at the same time Estrella starts to see foreboding visions of her mother (nightmarish conjurings), and right before El Chino’s goons slap a target on the already endangered children.
In other words, just the beginning of a somehow even more savage “you wish it was dystopian” narrative.
As Tigers Are Not Afraid fades from Mexican cartel statistics into scene one, Estrella’s school teacher has her class describe their favorite fairy tales (before gunfire erupts outside). López is priming us for the epic quest about to take place, which is bolstered by fantastical imagery as snakes slither off decorated pistol handles or plush tigers scamper around animatedly. A very real, very tragic bedtime story about murdered women and children that deploys necessary creative devices youngsters might realistically imagine to lessen the impact of traumatic predicaments. Empathy and beauty save audiences from being beaten into submission by a never-ceasing moral toxicity in this uncompromising Brother’s Grimm chapter dashed with the unpredictable. It doesn’t take the heartbreak or sting away, mind you – but what a supremely touchstone plea of sadness and courage becoming one.
Of course, the flip side is that Estrella’s teaming with Shine’s crew and inevitable flee from cartel dog-cage imprisonment happens because Mexican children are kidnapped day by day. Shine’s clubhouse abode isn’t a joyous campout – 4-year-old Morro (Nery Arredondo) won’t even speak because of the vileness he beheld when his parents were slain. Legends are spoken of boogeymen who lurk in shadows and how El Chino chops up those he snatches. This is reality for our “vagrants.” Each one discarded by corrupt governments and purely evil men, left to then endure as life becomes a cat-and-mouse game until the inevitable catches up. Derelict buildings are homes, theft is necessity and death could knock at any moment. You’re going to feel a lot of soul ache throughout Tigers Are Not Afraid.
The likes of Lara and Juan Ramón López display maturity beyond their years as “leaders” and warriors on a battlefield of bereavement. Adolescent boys struggle when a female counterpart threatens their dynamic, just as Estrella must adapt to their homeless lifestyle instead of waiting for nothing to come. Nery Arredondo as Morro – the curly-haired toddler who clutches his tiger pal for comfort – captures both the agony and unquestioned curiosity of childhood fears. López plays a “strong” and “fearless” alpha when not sobbing over his own loss, Lara evokes haunting memories of grief as she attempts to push forward, but Arredondo… Well, you’ll know the gut punch when you see it. Performances as affecting and powerful as actors triple their age; an experience understood best through those the eyes of those impacted most.
It’s in the title Tigers Are Not Afraid where López finds strength and meaning for her characters. Narration constantly reminds that tigers are warriors who’ve gone through the bad and came out alive. Kings of a broken kingdom who must also not forget to be the “prince” as well (still retain goodness). As Shine waxes on about predatory big cats, his rough graffiti drawings leap to life and scamper around brick walls as to embolden his words. The tiger becomes a recurring avatar as Estrella faces off against El Chino’s ruthless and merciless rule. It’s a fairy tale after all, so we need some kind of connection to elevated mystique. From flying dragons that’d fit on an iPhone screen to blood-red liquid lines that chase Estrella wherever she goes, López wastes not her most ambitious ideas.
Tigers Are Not Afraid is a tremendous balance between social rot and “Lost Boys” (Peter Pan) brand adventuring that centers around a particularly alarming phenomenon. Warning: you will sob helpless waterworks. Child actors display the poise of veterans, Issa López creates on multiple levels of artistic complexity and the entire production will leave you moved in a most wondrous – completely destabilizing – kind of way. Provocative, poignantly impassioned and so very wired to the fragile fibers of human storytelling. I’d watch this magnificently macabre production a million times over and it’d be worth every glistening tear each damn time. Please, release this movie to the masses ASAP.
/Film Rating: 9 out of 10