Writer and director Issa López's new film Tigers Are Not Afraid quickly sets up a world of magical realism, where ghosts, animated tigers, extreme drug cartel violence and a group of street kids collide into one of the most memorable films of the year. López is a big name in Mexico yet this will likely be American audiences first exposure to her work. It was for me and I will be seeking out more of her work as a result.
Early on, we see young Estrella (Paola Lara) have her world leveled when her mother (Viviana Amaya) disappears. We soon learn that her disappearance is related to the cartel that routinely raids the neighborhoods. Left alone, Estrella takes to the streets to find food and company. She meets Shine (Juan Ramon López), the leader of a group of children who all share the same fate as Estrella. They have had their homes shattered and stick together as a make-shift family.
The plot weaves a compelling mystery around what happened to Estrella. We learn early on that a local gangster named Caco (Ianis Guerrero) has something to do with her fate. However, this plot takes second-seat to López's brilliant direction. The film opens with a school lesson of fairy tales that is interrupted by gunfire outside. Estrella is given three wished, in the form of pieces of chalk, by her teacher. It is in moments like this that Tigers Are Not Afraid shines as something different. Comparisons to Guillermo Del Toro are likely and he is a fan of the film. However, López has her own distinct style. The images of plastic-wrapped ghosts, chalk-drawn animated tigers and trails of blood that follow Estrella are completely original.
The children performances here are remarkable. There is always a tension between being forced to mature at a young age and still wanting to remain innocent in the performances. The film is bleak and unsparing but also finds some genuinely touching moments of human connection. The film does not go easy on the violence to these young children, both in what they witness and what they experience. As a result, Tigers Are Not Afraid is not an easy film to experience. Yet it is a magical one, full of wonder and darkness in equal measure.
Tigers Are Not Afraid will hopefully bring new audiences to Issa López's work. She is a real talent, capable of creating unforgettable images on-screen. She is also a director with something to say about her home country. The film is headed to Shudder soon but it really ought to be seen on a big screen. Seek it out.