When reality is too grim, fantasy can be a blessed escape. For the 11-year-old heroine at the heart of the modern fairy tale, Tigers Are Not Afraid, fantasy becomes her rocky path to salvation. It guides her through a Mexican city overrun by a merciless drug cartel that cages kids, pays off cops, and murders without consequence. When her mother goes missing, brave little Estrella (Paola Lara) goes on a quest to find her. Along the way, she’ll discover whispering phantoms, a tiny dragon, and a deep inner strength that might pull this spirited survivor through the most dangerous turns unscathed.
Written and directed by Issa López’s, Tigers Are Not Afraid (also known asVuelven) feels like Pan’s Labyrinth meets The Florida Project. Opening titles inform the audience of the real and horrifying drug war that’s responsible for 160,000 deaths, and 53,000 disappearances in Mexico, which has shattered families and communities, turning once bustling neighborhoods into ghost towns. Then comes the cryptic warning, “There are no numbers for the children the dead and missing have left behind.” From there, López embeds her audience in the scorching squalor of the children left orphaned and homeless by a litany of drive-by shootings, abductions, and homicides. Squatting in a shantytown of discarded trash and stolen treasures are a quartet of lost boys, ages 6 to 11, all caked with dirt and scarred by tragedy, yet forging a new family and surviving.
Estrella’s journey gives us a hint to these boys’ lives before the scraping by in junkyards. Introduced in a crisp school uniform, she sits attentively in class, learning about fairy tales and creating one of her own. Out of nowhere, gunfire erupts outside the school’s walls. Her teacher instructs the students to take cover and soothes Estrella by giving her three nubs of chalk, telling her each is a wish that will protect her. The school is swiftly shuttered indefinitely. As she grapples with this loss, Estrella returns home to the utter terror of an empty house. Her mother is gone; their home is no longer safe without her. So Estrella leaves all she knows behind and joins up with these loyal lost boys, led by a pugnacious pickpocket called Shine (Juan Ramón López) who is being hunted by a merciless kingpin.
On the fringes of the frame, amid the bullet-ridden back alleys and garbage-strewn hovels, fantastical creatures lurk. A sentient blood trail pushes through dirt and against gravity to give warning to Estrella. A hissing ghost offers spine-chilling instructions, while a tattered tiger presents comfort. But none of these are the charming creatures of Disney princess tales with plucky advice and sprightly songs. All are better suited to the haunting realms of Guillermo del Toro, places of inky darkness, gruesome monsters, and bittersweet stories. For every wish Estrella makes has a monkey-paw twist. Nothing happens as she wants. Her power is perverted. Even the most simple, innocent request will be answered with horror and bloodshed.
López offers a shocking frankness in depicting the poverty of her characters, but elegantly laces in an unapologetic sentimentality that keeps humanity alight even in the movie’s darkest moments. Her portrayal of this cruel childhood is balanced with the stinging steeliness of the traumatized Estrella and Shine against the playfulness of the other lost boys, who bicker like brothers, demand bedtime stories, and cuddle toys as they curl up to sleep in a hollowed-out television.
The performances of her child actors are raw yet powerful, rich in furrowed brows, fitful shoulders, shaky sneers, and deep, mournful eyes. When they are in danger, your heart rattles up to your throat. When they find joy in silly games that seem like a ludicrous luxury, your heart swells for them. But even as this fantasy movie drives towards its version of a happy ending, your heart thumps hard with tension. Because though Tigers Are Not Afraid is fiction, it comes from a place that is all too real. And López’s alluring yet unnerving fairy tale won’t let you forget that.
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com