TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID is a Ferociously Fearless Fairy Tale

Issa López’s Mexican fantasy makes a long-awaited stateside debut courtesy of Shudder

There’s a scene early on in Tigers Are Not Afraid where a group of orphaned children gather to hear one of their own tell a familiar story. One child hands the teller a flashlight to shine under his face and asks him to “give it some epic.” The best of stories live up to this simple goal: to escape the everyday world by imbuing it with the extraordinary. But what makes Tigers Are Not Afraid such an extraordinary film in itself is how writer-director Issa López makes the fantastic elements of these kids’ stories as real as the near-inescapable violence of the world they live in. Here, the lines between the magical, the macabre, and the disturbingly mundane are nonexistent. Trails of blood from carpet-covered gang victims scale walls where they paint doom-laden Rorschach blots; decals of creatures come to life and fly away; and the anguished whispers of vanished parents are a perpetual nightly soundtrack.

In the two years between Tigers’ 2017 Fantastic Fest premiere and its US release, López’s film has earned numerous comparisons to the socially-conscious magical realism of Guillermo Del Toro, who was fittingly one of Tigers’ earliest champions. What’s so compelling about Tigers Are Not Afraid, though, is how fantasy serves a much deeper purpose for these kids than a distraction from a harsh, cruel world. To storyteller Shine, protagonist Estrella, and their fellow orphans, stories are the only way of making sense of the senseless violence surrounding them. Their tales give them courage, room to grieve…and possibly the hope of a happy ending. In López’s fearless film, Tigers Are Not Afraid prizes storytelling in all its forms — both as an endlessly entertaining means of escape and as a crucial tool of survival.

Estrella is a schoolgirl with a love of fairy tales whose mother suddenly vanishes one day — an all-too-common experience plaguing Mexico, where numbers of the desaparecidos range in the hundreds of thousands. A chance encounter leads Estrella to join forces with Shine and his gaggle of rooftop kids, where they try their best to steer clear of their neighborhood’s deadly street gang. Fantasy and reality blur as Estrella is haunted by visions of her mother, who begs for vengeance as danger closes in on all sides for Estrella and her newfound family.

A blend of gritty street drama, gothic horror, and dreamlike fantasy, Tigers features a story whose mix of tones and genres seems impossible to tidily square away. Surprisingly, the film’s success comes from López’s refusal to favor one genre over the other. A stuffed animal coming to life and other moments of magic dazzle in their innocence and beauty. Others, like when Estrella’s mother reappears as a vengeful ghost akin to the onryo of J-Horror films, are bone-chilling. However, these moments never feel isolated from or in conflict with each other. Much like how López refuses to invalidate Estrella’s fantasy world or suffocate it in ambiguity, López confidently asserts that these disparate tones can, should, and will exist in the same universe, where they can compliment each other with increasing complexity.

This continuous interplay between the real and imagined also offers a unique glimpse into a third world: the haunted inner lives of López’s child cast. Each of the Tigers are victims of the same loss — their parents have all vanished in the midst of rising gang violence. However, each of them express their unimaginable grief on their own individual terms. Estrella, whose agony is still fresh, remains the most hopeful; Shine, who literally bears the scars of loss, has hardened in his rage; a third, Morro, is just over a toddler yet has seen horrors incomprehensible to most adults — and has gone mute as a result. Each child, especially Paola Lara’s Estrella and Juan Ramón López’s Shine, demonstrates a remarkable range of emotion, fully aware and in command of the challenges facing their respective roles. Seriously, it’s mind-boggling how talented these kids are.

Just as talented are the crew behind the camera. With its painterly sunsets over ruinous, deserted neighborhoods, Juan Jose Saravia’s cinematography deftly evokes the incongruous and visceral beauty of the Tigers’ cruel world. Ana Solares’ production design is frequently inspired, particularly during a sequence set in an abandoned mansion. Notably, puddles of rainwater provide safe haven for a school of koi whose tank has long since shattered. And from the already-mentioned zigzagging blood lines and cell phone dragons to animated graffiti of tigers jumping between brick walls, Tigers’ visual effects feel elementally grounded within their world, always heightening the illusion rather than shattering it.

The most challenging aspect of Tigers is how deeply unsettling the violence facing its underage cast can be. The film’s second scene, after a classroom introduction to fairytale tropes, has Shine steal and aim a loaded gun at an unsuspecting gang member. It’s incredibly tense, not just because it’s a child holding a gun, but that Shine may be emotionally prepared to use it. The film continues through the kids’ deadly struggles with the Huascas, where this same attitude towards violence and death is more than expected of them. One indelible image has children performing a street limbo using crime scene tape. As these children reckon with killing to survive or for revenge, I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortably privileged in my position as a viewer. These children dream of escape, as does the audience — but all I have to do to escape is walk out of the theater.

With Tigers, López asks her audience, regardless of their background, to directly engage with those concerns. She illustrates the power of these children’s imaginations and their role in enduring unconscionable horror; in tandem, she also calls attention to the conditions that require such imaginations to survive. This sobering approach to the supernatural makes clear that one cannot indulge in the escape that fantasy provides without confronting the world one’s escaping from. Tigers demonstrates that storytelling power throughout — not just as a means of escapist entertainment or of surviving the unimaginable, but the power of stories to create new bonds of connection and empathy.

As a writer-director, López mines beauty, even excitement, out of hopelessness and terror, delivering escape for some and a wake-up call to others. By delving into the lives of those affected by the film’s opening statistics, López allows her audience to experience her characters’ terror and bravery in ways those numbers could never express. Tigers Are Not Afraid is a film that’s both undeniably beautiful and undeniably terrifying — because that’s how these children see the world, and it’s crucial that we as an unfamiliar audience see it the same way.

Tigers Are Not Afraid opens in Austin theaters on September 6th courtesy of Shudder.

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