When Tigers Are Not Afraid is not busy scaring you, it’s breaking your heart. Social activism meets horror meets coming-of-age in this bracing, gorgeously shot, intense multiple award-winning film that’s both written and directed by famed and favored Mexican filmmaker Issa Lopez. Since it originally premiered at Fantastic Fest in 2017, it has garnered over 50 awards from film festivals around the world, and now finally seeing its long-awaited releasing in theaters around the US.
A fantasy grounded in gritty reality, Tigers Are Not Afraid is centered on pre-teen Estrella (Paola Lara), who joins a group of homeless orphaned boys after her mother disappears, a victim of the ongoing drug-related violence that’s decimating Mexican cities and towns. Estrella is given three chalk pieces by her teacher while machine gun shots ring out right outside her classroom, and told each chalk bit will grant her one wish. When she wishes her mother would come home, she inadvertently creates a connection to the spirits of those killed by cartels in the Mexican drug war.
The story feels like an ultra-violent, grittier Peter Pan, with these lost boys finding fun and marching through a landscape that is far more perilous than they let on. When Estrella joins their ranks recalls Wendy, who takes up caregiving and comforting, though in Tigers Are Not Afraid, the blend of both the virgin and mother archetypes she represents speaks to the additional danger at-risk female children experience when on the streets.
Tigers Are Not Afraid is a dark fairy tale of fear, courage, and trauma that feels rooted in the same aesthetic as that of fellow Mexican auteur, Guillermo Del Toro. Lopez shows her considerable facility with child actors, and the stars, including Paola Lara and Juan Ramon Lopez as El Shine, demand audience attention from the first scene, holding it hostage through the last indelible image onscreen.
There is no question this is a challenging film to watch. Even in horror, there are unspoken rules about children: In peril, yes. Death, no. Lopez rightly throws out those rules, in the name of keeping it real, making the film the better for it. Though fantastical, Tigers Are Not Afraid is deeply rooted in truths about the violence the poor and forgotten experience in a drug-based economy aided by corrupt politicians. Peripherally, also says quite a bit about the children being left at-risk and without parents within our own borders.
Though not recommended for those who shun films featuring children under threat, committed viewers will likely place Tigers Are Not Afraid on the list of 2019’s best films.