Tigers Are Not Afraid, a mix of magical realism and horror film about children living under the devastating conditions of the Mexican drug wars, starts in a reassuringly normal place, a classroom full of grade school children working on an assignment. That assignment is to create a fairy tale story. One preteen girl writes about a prince who wants to become a tiger, because tigers are never afraid. But he can’t become a tiger because he has forgotten how to be a prince. “We forget how to be princes, warriors, tigers, when the things from outside come to get us,” she writes, just before gunfire outside reminds us about just where we are.
It is a striking introduction to this Spanish-language tale of children caught in the Mexican drug wars, a conflict that has left whole neighborhoods empty and countless children orphaned. Images of tigers, or references to them, are everywhere through out this harrowing, haunting tale from filmmaker Issa Lopez.
Suddenly, the girl in the classroom, Estrella, finds herself thrown in with a group of rough orphaned boys of various ages who are living on the streets. Together they must cope with the drug lords who murdered their parents, in this half-magical, half nightmarish world that feels like a ghost story crossed with a fairy tale. The gritty realism of the street blends with touches of animation and surreal, nightmarish images, magical realism that brings to mind the earliest films of Guillermo Del Toro, in a remarkable tale of traumatic childhood.