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Tigers Are Not Afraid puts a Pan’s Labyrinth spin on a poignant Mexican drug war story

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Director Issa López was inspired by Guillermo del Toro’s dark fantasies

Fairy tales and horror films often share the same purpose: to provide thrills, scares, and fantasies for people living comfortable lives. But for people whose worlds aren’t already safe, they can take on a whole new meaning. They become a way to process the scariest, most unpredictable aspects of a world that’s impossible to control.

Pulling from the Latin American tradition of magical realism and influenced by Guillermo del Toro’s early work, in particular, Issa López’s Spanish-language film Tigers Are Not Afraid uses the lens of fantasy and horror to explore the lives of the children who are left behind by the Mexican drug war. It’s visceral in its grim realism, yet it’s also poignant and cathartic in its use of the fantastical. Above all, it’s a reminder of how genre storytelling can provide real-world social commentary, not just breezy escapism.

Currently rolling out slowly in select cities ahead of an eventual debut on the horror streaming service Shudder, Tigers Are Not Afraid has had a long road to release. It was shot in 2015, but it didn’t debut until Fantastic Fest in 2017 where it won a Best Horror Director prize. It’s since earned famous admirers, including Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, and Guillermo del Toro who’s now set to produce López’s next film.

Though it shares a lot of DNA with del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, Tigers Are Not Afraid is a contemporary story, rather than a period piece. After the opening text explains that hundreds of thousands of people have disappeared or been killed since the writer / director began in 2006, the film juxtaposes two versions of childhood in a struggling Mexican city. In one, reserved Estrella (Paola Lara) and her peers sit in neat school uniforms in a bright classroom, working on an assignment to write their own fairy tales. In the other, orphaned street kid Shine (Juan Ramón López) steals a gun from a drunken gang leader and contemplates shooting him in the head, but he can’t summon the courage.

How easily one child can become the other is quickly made clear when violence shuts down Estrella’s school. Her teacher tries to comfort her by handing her three pieces of chalk and telling her they represent the three magical wishes of a fairy tale. But then Estrella returns home to find her mother gone — presumably at the hands of a cartel known as Huascas, although the unknown is part of her maddening new reality. Desperate for food, she joins Shine and his small band of orphaned kids in their makeshift home. “We forget who we are,” she narrates, “when the things from outside come to get us.”

Estrella and Shine are the Peter and Wendy figures for Shine’s trio of lost boys: Tucsi (Hanssel Casillas), Pop (Rodrigo Cortes), and young Morro (Nery Arredondo) who’s too traumatized by what he’s seen to speak. In place of Michael Darling’s teddy bear, he carries around a stuffed tiger. And he loves to hear Shine tell the story of a tiger who escaped his cage and now wanders the streets after the Huascas killed his wealthy owner. These kinds of urban legends become a way for the kids to process their emotions. Estrella suggests that the tiger must be scared, lonely, and missing its family. Shine shoots back that it’s happy now that it’s free to rule its own “fucked-up” kingdom.

López makes this central idea of fairy tales even more literal as Estrella starts to use the chalk to make wishes, and seemingly supernatural elements start to invade her world. A question hangs over the film, much as it did with Pan’s Labyrinth: are Estrella’s wishes really being fulfilled, or are they just an imagination tool to reclaim some semblance of control in her life? But Tigers Are Not Afraid doesn’t play like a mystery so much as a poignant allegory. In a world where police and politicians are complacent at best and violent participants at worst, Estrella and her friends can only rely on each other and whatever spiritual protection or doom the universe offers.

Though the film’s budgetary restrictions occasionally show through in less-than-perfect special effects, they also force López to get creative in what she depicts. Her innovation rings through in simple sequences where Shine’s graffiti springs to life or Estrella speaks to otherworldly forces through a paper cup. Even when the film occasionally overstretches its CGI, it shows so much promise and creativity in its worldbuilding that it’s easy to forgive.

The same goes for the slight excess of plot that bogs down Tigers Are Not Afraid on the way to its climax. Estrella, Shine, and their friends are set on several collision courses with the Huascas whose various factions are out to retrieve a cellphone that contains an incriminating video. Though the moments of violent conflict are often effectively tense, they’re ultimately less interesting than the observational look at what life is like for these orphaned children.

There’s a touch of Sean Baker’s The Florida Project in the way Tigers Are Not Afraid depicts how kids can make their own fun in even the grimmest world. When the group moves into an abandoned city center, they compare it to an elven paradise from Lord of the Rings. A puddle of goldfish from a smashed aquarium tank becomes their idea of a magical zoo. They act out a talent competition in an abandoned auditorium and create their own arts and crafts project out of soccer balls and black sharpies. The film features an openly supernatural world, but its most magical image might be the one of a child simply dancing in the rain with an umbrella.

López gets remarkable performances from her ensemble of young actors whose grounded naturalism is crucial to keeping the film anchored in its grim reality, even as it shifts into genre territory. Paola Lara and Juan Ramón López are both huge standouts, effortlessly depicting the shifting power dynamics between Estrella and Shine. Ramón López, in particular, is remarkable at capturing the vulnerable humanity beneath the tough exterior Shine has adopted to survive. Though the story stays rooted in its protagonists’ perspective, it also serves as a broader portrait of the kinds of brutal violence that South American immigrants and refugees are trying to escape as they make the desperate, dangerous journey to cross the border into the United States. Just by humanizing the victims of the drug war, López seems to be making a pointed statement.

While López has long been a major genre-hopping talent in Mexico, Tigers Are Not Afraid confidently launches her onto a bigger international stage. She’s worked on heavier material like the 2015 Tim Roth-led Mexican cartel drama 600 Miles, but she’s best known for female-led comedies and romantic comedies like 2003’s Ladies’ Night and 2008’s Casi Divas, the latter of which she also directed. Tigers Are Not Afraid also returns her to the magical realism and horror roots she hasn’t explored outside of some short stories early in her career.

Less didactic than Neill Blomkamp’s 2009 sci-fi apartheid allegory District 9 (which she cites as an influence) but even more culturally urgent than a period piece like Pan’s Labyrinth, Tigers Are Not Afraid isn’t an easy watch, despite the sense of earned catharsis it offers by the end. Like so much of the best genre storytelling, it uses its fantastical elements to reflect the difficulties of the real world back at us through a new lens, rather than encouraging us to escape them.