'Tigers are not Afraid' is set in a lower-class neighbourhood of an unnamed Mexican city taken over by a criminal gang known as Los Huascas, who have left a trail of abandoned children in the wake of their many murders and kidnappings. It's a grim world where mums, dads, brothers and sisters can just disappear at any moment, leaving the survivors to fend for themselves.
The film follows recently-orphaned Estrella (Paola Laura) as she tries to escape her fears and find a new family in a gang of street children, including Pop (Rodrigo Cortes), Tucsi (Hanssel Casillas), and Morrito (Nery Arredondo).
The gang is led by the scar-faced Shine (Juan Ramón López), who we meet as he sneaks up on a Huascas thug named Caco (Ianis Guerrero) and steals his gun and mobile phone. However, supernatural forces seem to follow Estrella, along with a vengeful Caco, his boss El Chino and a web of political corruption that the children will have to defeat in order to move on.
The film isn't a deep dive into the violence of Mexican gang life, like Cary Fukunaga's sensitive 'Sin Nombre', or the cartel wars, like Denis Villeneuve's posturing 'Sicario'. With sentient graffiti, worm-like blood trails, flaming grand pianos, walking stuffed animals, and clear references to well-known fairytale tropes, this magical realist film from writer/director Issa López tips its hat to Guillermo del Toro's filmography, particularly 'The Devil's Backbone' and 'Pan's Labyrinth', but with a contemporary setting rather than the Spanish Civil War.
Not unlike Nora Twomey's recent animated film 'The Breadwinner' (about a 12-year old girl who finds comfort in fantasy while living under Taliban rule in Afghanistan), the gang of children regularly tell stories to one another about princes, fairies, and especially about tigers, who fight, survive on their own, and are never afraid of the situation.
The bedtime story that Shine tells his charges concerns a tiger that roams the streets at night in search of members of the Huaco cartel. Meanwhile, in the real world, members of the Huaco cartel start dropping like flies. There's a literal explanation for the spate of assassinations, but Shine and Estrella are emboldened by their fantasies.
With sentient graffiti, worm-like blood trails, flaming grand pianos, walking stuffed animals , and clear references to well-known fairy tale tropes, this magical realist film from writer/director Issa López tips its hat to Guillermo del Toro's filmography.
The atrocities of Mexico's drug war are already in the domain of horror movies. These elements, such as the plastic-wrapped, whispering ghosts of the cartel's victims (materialising from the houses, junkyards and even a paper cup), ramp up dramatically as the film approaches it's climax. López uses them to reflect on humanity - we are never sure whether Estrella, who is the most haunted of the children and seems to have some kind of connection to another world, has a supernatural gift or is just traumatised by her situation.
Impressively shot by Juan Jose Saravia and scored by Vince Pope, with restrained use of special effects, the unquestionable MVP of 'Tigers are not Afraid' is young newcomer Juan Ramón López, who plays Shine. While Issa López gets phenomenal performances from all the child actors (aged between 6 and 12), Juan Ramón centres it all with a screen debut that captivates.
Depending on how you interpret the fantastical aspects, 'Tigers are not Afraid' either transports us to a world where the supernatural walks through dirty alleyways and abandoned houses, or takes us on a journey through a child's imagination as it tries to justify unspeakable bloodshed, death, and a heartbreaking abundance of helplessness.
Ultimately, Issa López's film balances dread with tenderness, and refracts the terror, sadness and hope of modern day Mexico through the eyes of a young girl.