Director: Issa Lopez
Writer: Issa Lopez
Producer: Marco Polo Constandse Cordova
Stars: Paolo Lara, Juan Ramon Lopez, Ianis Guerrero, Rodrigo Cortes, Hanssel Casillas, Nery Arredondo, Tenoch Huerta Mejia
Five orphans fight to survive against a deadly drug cartel as well as a supernatural threat in a ravaged Mexican ghost town.
With “Tigers Are Not Afraid,” writer/director Issa Lopez takes audiences on a personal, ultimately universal exploration of a parent-child relationship in dark fairytale form. What’s particularly unusual about this slightly supernatural family dynamic is that the parent happens to be dead, though this only strengthens how tightly the two are tethered together.
Among countless casualties created by Mexico’s drug cartel crime epidemic are the orphans left behind in ghost towns when families disappear. Presumably in the tens of thousands, that unknown number rises by one when a day made bleak by a murder at school gets even bleaker after Estrella comes home to an unexpectedly empty household.
To calm the young girl from the chaos of gunfire outside their classroom, a teacher passed Estrella three pieces of chalk she claimed could grant three wishes. Now facing the pain in her heart from loneliness, as well as the pain in her stomach from hunger, Estrella wishes her mother would return. That wish comes true, although the woman returns as a wicked whisper in her ear and haunting vision in her eye, setting Estrella down a path leading toward the human traffickers who took her mother.
Before she can get to that goal, Estrella finds a new family in four fellow street kids whose families met similar fates. Their little leader Shine isn’t anxious to allow a girl into his group. He’ll make an exception however, provided Estrella performs one simple task: kill the cartel soldier working for the man who made them orphans.
Estrella is about to use her second wish to get this dangerous deed done. In so doing, she sets off a chain reaction bringing her closer to revenge, but with deadly consequences for the small children trying to take down a big crime boss.
Not since Jennifer Kent’s “The Babadook” (review here) has a filmmaker so creatively captured both the magic and the misery of childhood fears and fantasy. The bittersweet beauty and heartbreaking horror of saying goodbye to ghosts comes across through richly relatable drama anchored by empathetic emotion, only gently tinged with a hint of otherworldly fantasy. Without resorting to flashy theatrics, “Tigers Are Not Afraid” knits a uniquely haunting tale that is entertaining, endearing, and urgently important because its topical social context desperately deserves deeper awareness.
It’s incredibly rare for any film to pull an exceptional performance from a child actor with next to no professional experience. This challenge is additionally difficult in Mexico, where telenovela culture births unintended instincts to overact in aspiring young thespians.
Nevertheless, “Tigers Are Not Afraid” achieves no less than five emotionally honest portrayals of resilient kids struggling to survive a seemingly hopeless situation. By itself, this feat qualifies Issa Lopez for elite status among impressive directors, though she humbly acknowledges the huge helping hands of her tandem casting team and acting coach. This is phenomenal work by everyone involved to not only find five diamonds in the rough of 600 auditions, but to polish them into sharply cut gems who believably read as real people bearing unreal burdens.
Tackling the technical side of the film’s execution unearths nitpicks featuring less fine-tuning. A guerrilla shooting style lathers additional grit on dirty settings draped in dreadful despair. Those same handheld jitters contribute as much to disorienting distractions as they do to a documentary-esque appeal. Tinkling piano keys also excessively expend more effort than required when the material carries so much natural weight, artificially inflated emotion is unnecessarily cinematic.
Although employed sparingly, visual effects aren’t always smooth either. The thing is, they don’t have to be since the film’s true strength lies in its sobering reality.
“Tigers Are Not Afraid” possesses a distinctive ability to meld a movie with an individual’s mind, escapism with grounded emotions, and provocative fiction with unfortunate facts. This contemporary, moderately chilling take on “Peter Pan” mythology may contain supernatural spirits, but it is a human story above all else, and doesn’t fail to fulfill the promise of its power as a fable about children aimed at triggering touchstones inside every adult.
NOTE: The film’s Spanish title is “Vuelven.”
Review Score: 85