[THS Review] Tigers Are Not Afraid

When I’m asked why I love horror so much, I typically explain how horror, more than any other genre, can tackle an issue and present it in a way that’s both enlightening and exciting. Adding the veneer of horror to a story frees the filmmaker to really dive into the subject matter and create something that transcends real life.

Take the fairy tale aspect of Pan’s Labyrinth, for example. Guillermo del Toro frames an examination of the horrors of the Spanish Civil War and the dictatorship of the Francoist period by surrounding it with a dark fairy tale. By focusing on Ofelia, who herself is living in her own dictatorship of a family, and watching the destruction through her eyes, we are able to witness the true horrors of the war and its aftermath. The two stories in Pan’s Labyrinth intertwine with each other, tackling a very dark subject matter and presenting it in ways that a regular drama wouldn’t be able to.

I mention Pan’s Labyrinth because this little film by writer/director Issa López has been and will continue to be compared to it. This is definitely good company to be in, as any filmmaker would kill to be mentioned in the same breath as Guillermo. But Tigers Are Not Afraid doesn’t belong in the shadow of that great movie. It’s its own beast and is amazing in ways both familiar and not. And it demands to be seen and discussed.

The film opens with a stark and a gut punch statement and statistics about the atrocities committed by the cartels in Mexico and the consequences of the gang wars: the orphaned children. I can’t remember the statistics, but they were sobering, particularly because they are incomplete and estimates.

Afterward this sobering introduction, López sets the scene for her own tale. Estrella (Paola Lara) is a young girl in class, working on her assignment. Her teacher has asked the students to write about their favorite fairy tales; you can’t help but imagine that it’s partially done to take the children’s minds off of the every day horrors, literally waiting outside their classroom windows. This point is punctuated quite literally as someone shoots up the school. The saddest part is how used to this the kids seem to be, as they throw themselves to the floor to escape stray bullets. It’s a savage reminder that as much as we want to construct a safe reality, life can and will intrude in the most violent ways.

Estrella goes home to her empty house and waits for her mom to come home. She waits. And waits. She calls her mom’s phone. Leaves a message. In desperation, she makes a wish for her mom to come back. And something does. “Essstrellaaaa…” a sibilant voice whispers from the dark. Something has returned, but it feels malevolent and dark. And so she flees, running into an orphaned gang of kids, led by Shine (Juan Ramón López). Shine’s little group have become experts at dodging the cartels, who make kids like them disappear. Rumors spread about some beast or boogeyman that stalks the streets and the Huascas cartel is known for kidnapping and chopping children up. Shine’s little gang live on the streets and the roofs of dilapidated buildings, a different and stark take on a Gothic setting, and try to build a meager existence. They’ve become their own found family that protects each other. Shine is the de facto leader of his ragtag group that is composed of other orphaned children. The youngest is Morrito (Nery Arredondo), who has been rendered mute by the atrocities he’s witnessed. He carries around a stuffed tiger as his metaphorical protector, a thematic device that continues throughout the narrative and ties each of the kid’s own fantasies together.

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The plot is thrust into high gear when Shine steals a phone and an ornate gun from Caco (Ianis Guerro), one of the cartels’ leaders. Unfortunately for Shine and his gang, the phone has incriminating evidence that the cartel will do anything to keep under the wraps. So Shine’s group, with the newly acquired Estrella, are forced to deal with this new threat, while eking out some kind of survival on the streets of Mexico.

Issa López grounds the story in a very gritty and prescient way that feels very “now.” As I mentioned above, it will be compared to Guillermo’s masterpiece, but while Pan’s Labyrinth weaves its way through two worlds (the fairytale and reality) and examines the way they intersect to create a fuller picture of the terrors of war, Tigers Are Not Afraid doesn’t really give its viewers the chance to escape reality. Labyrinth uses the artiface of fairytales to create metaphors for the villains; think the Pale Man, who engorges on fairies and has a spread of food laid out in front of him that no one else is allowed to eat. The fantastical is in plain sight and the story takes on a hero’s journey/quest structure. But, in López’s story, the fairytale aspect comes in a number of more subtle ways. It’s in the imaginations of the kids, who can bring to life a plush tiger. It resides mostly in the background, until it can't be ignored any longer.

In Estrella’s tale, for instance, she imagines a world where the princes had to become tigers (warriors) to survive a terrible situation they’re faced with. But that, as tigers, they must not forget to be “princes.” The sentiment is reminiscent of the famous quote by Nietzsche about gazing into the abyss. Becoming tigers may be necessary to survive; but don’t lose your humanity in the same way. A very lofty goal, considering the horrors these orphaned children must deal with, both in this narrative and in real life. Here is where López allows the fantastical to enter the story, helping it from becoming too bleak. When Shine waxes on about the power of tigers and how they prowl the streets, the fearsome feline graffiti on the walls leaps to life. Dragons slink from iPhones and Estrella is constantly keeping just ahead of a thin, blood-red line that seems destined to fracture her existence even further. Then there are the nightmarish things that exist in the periphery, hissing her name and asking for her assistance.

Yet, in such a bleak and unsettling film, Issa López manages to imbue her characters with some lightness. The performances she manages to get out of the mostly child cast is astonishing and poignant. At the end of the day, these are boys and girls who have been thrust into an adult life that they aren’t prepared for. But interrupting the darkness are scenes where the kids discover soccer balls, fantasize about homes with indoor soccer courts, draw their own fairy tales on said soccer balls and, for a moment, can be kids. Or they fantasize about a building/home they’ve discovered and what treasures and joys it can bring them. A broken aquarium that’s spilled its fish into a cracked floor becomes a poignant and touching display of life still trying to find a way in all the destruction. These moments brim with pathos and childlike wonder. But it’s the kids’ own version of a fairy tale and the real world keeps intruding. When López reminds them (and us) of this fact and turns back on the reality, it hurts.

López crafts moments that strike hard and without warning; sucker punches that left me gasping and heartbroken. She doesn’t hold back the horrors, both supernatural and real. It’s absolutely a horror film; one that makes you care about the characters, even as it savages them. Even though the film feels more grounded than something like Pan’s Labyrinth, as the story hurtles to its inevitable conclusion, López deftly ties together the fantasy, the supernatural and the real world horror into a climax that is both stunning and wrenching. Here, the ghosts won’t be silenced any longer. They become representative of the grief, the horror and the thousands killed. In a place filled with grief and horror, the ghosts of the victims cry out for both release and vengeance and they make themselves known in unpleasant ways. The stakes are so real in this world that’s cruelly and so casually orphaned children. And while a fairy tale might have a happy ending, those are harder to come by in the real world. That Lopez is able to execute an ending like this without devolving into melodrama is a feat.

Tigers Are Not Afraid was probably my favorite movie screened at the Telluride Horror Show. Its immediacy and grittiness hooked me, and the performances moved me. It’s a very difficult subject matter, but handled in such a touching and honest way. And while it’s nice to be compared to the masterpiece that is Pan’s Labyrinth, it more than deserves to stand on its own. This is a movie that demands to be seen.