Tigers Are Not Afraid (2019)
SHOULD I SEE IT?
This is one of 2019’s best films.
Issa López’s film has taken a four-year journey to reach the big screen. Steeped in real-life events and horrors depicting Mexican people every day, this child-driven journey into the depths of poverty and drug dealing is a fairy tale/suspense/horror hybrid you won’t soon forget.
Blends genres with ease, López masterfully drawing us into a world we become both fascinated and fearful of.
This is, at times, a very difficult film to watch. Those with an uneasiness of seeing children in peril should be warned.
For some, I imagine the mixing of genres and the blending of socio-political observation, with child-like fantasy, and an unflinching real-life and supernatural horror story, will just seem far too busy and ambitious to pull off.
For those anticipating something more mainstream, either by seeing this in theaters or on demand, you may be disappointed that this is much more a film in the vein of Pan’s Labyrinth than, say,your garden-variety jump-scare multiplex flick.
Shot in 2015, debuting on the festival circuit in 2017, and finally landing in theaters in the late-summer/early fall of 2019, Tigers Are Not Afraid is as resilient a movie as you are ever going to find.
Director Issa López’s film is a sobering, powerful, and richly symbolic look at the devastating consequences of Mexican gang culture and the victims so often forgotten about – the children.
Haunted by the sudden abandonment of her mother, 10-year-old Estrella (Paola Lara) is left to fend for herself in an impoverished Mexican community. After getting what she believes are three wishes from a teacher, while hiding under desks as gunfire takes place just outside their schoolhouse, she pockets three pieces of chalk, and soon finds herself intertwined with a local group of homeless youth.
Their leader, dubbed El Jefe, a/k/a Shine (Juan Ramón López), is a resourceful and cold-blooded. Together, the kids scavenge, survive, and try to stay hidden from the violent Huascas, a ruthless gang of drug dealers running roughshod through the underground.
López has stated that films like The Goonies and Lord of the Flies served as partial inspiration for this story, as did the death of her mother at a young age. Her final product is a stunning work of drama and horror, breathtaking in its presentation, and deeply moving in its overall emotional devastation.
The writer/director screened over 600 child actors before she settled in on her cast, nearly all of them first-time performers. Lara and Ramón López are terrific, but she takes the time to find just enough time to allow us to get to know and understand the motivations behind the children and why this ragtag group have such a close knit bond and connection.
The film’s unforgettable power comes from the way López interlocks the elements of adventure, horror, drama, and the realities of the fictional story she is presenting. Lost in the horrific tales of the drug wars in Mexico, skipped over in several documentaries on the topic, is the orphaning of young children and the families irreparably and forever damaged by the violence which has fallen upon certain areas of their homeland.
As a title card tells us at the beginning of the film, since the Drug War erupted in Mexico in 2006, over 210,000 residents have either been murdered or gone missing. And the number of children comprising those figures is unknown.
Time and again, in this fictional world, we are shown the kids’ resilience, seeing them become a community unto themselves and believably manufacturing instinctual ways to survive. There is a raw, unpolished nature to the performances which make them seem quite real and believable. Even in moments where Estrella has visions of a ghostly figure seemingly watching over her, controlling her situation, and guiding through the hellish underworld she tries to stay afloat in, we feel connected to the emotions López is exploring.
A cell phone becomes very important. The arrival of supernatural sightings intensifies. The Huascas will cross paths with our protagonists. And we cannot look away. Tigers are Not Afraid never shies away from difficult moments, the film, at times, hard to watch.
Powered by a haunting, moving score by Vince Pope, and child-like visual effects, which some have said detract from the overall power of the piece, López has done what the best storytellers are able to do. She immerses us into a world we typically never see, creates a sense of fear for both the viewer and character to connect with, and offers us real-world realities to contemplate and consider.
At the end, the children are desperate to have what so many around them will never get to experience: One more day.
This is a bold, brave film. And while some may recoil from the violence and unapologetic manner with which the film is presented, Tigers Are Not Afraid is a movie that I have been sitting with and talking about, since I first saw it in the spring of 2018. Watching it some 16 months later, it had an even more profound effect.
Now in theaters and premiering on the Shudder platform in the fall of 2019, Tigers Are Not Afraid arrives as ongoing immigration controversies dominate American politics. This places the film in an entirely new context, which did not exist in 2015, much less when the film played festivals in 2017 and 2018.
Championed for years by Oscar-winning filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, and acclaimed writers Neil Gaiman and Stephen King, the film could not be opening at a more important or relevant time.
CAST & CREW
Starring: Paola Lara, Juan Ramón López, Tenoch Huerta, Ianis Guerrero, Rodrigo Cortes, Hanssel Casillas, Nery Arredondo.
Director: Issa López
Written by: Issa López
Release Date: August 21, 2019
Variance Films | Shudder