Sometimes the best genre films are found in the most unexpected places, like in a story of kids who are orphaned as the result of violent gang wars in the slums of Mexico. That’s the setting for Issa Lopez’s Tigers Are Not Afraid, a jaw-dropping film that blends reality and the supernatural in an absolutely beautiful way. It feels like a spiritual sequel to Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone or Pan’s Labyrinth, except with a more modern, realistic setting.
Estrella is a young girl whose mother mysteriously goes missing. With nowhere else to turn, she attempts to find companionship, and food, with a group of boys who have also lost their families. The boys live on a roof, steal to survive, and find solace in each other. That’s the horrible, real-world setting of Lopez’s film. A world where gangsters rule with their trigger fingers and trade not only in drugs, but in human beings too. A world where mums, dads, brothers, and sisters can just disappear at any moment, leaving the survivors to fend for themselves.
To deal with this horrible reality, most of the kids latch on to fantasy. They regularly tell fairy tales to one another — stories about princes, fairies, and especially about tigers. Tigers who fight, survive on their own, and are never afraid of the situation. This goes one step further for Estrella, who seems to have some kind of connection to another world, in that she sees ghosts, mysterious lines of blood on the floor, and other supernatural things. However, Lopez never lets us in on whether these visions are real or in Estrella’s mind. The natural setting leans towards the latter — that she’s just putting a horrific face on a horrific situation, but we don’t know for sure.
As Estrella and her new, young friends strive to survive, they get increasingly tangled in a large, corrupt political web that they will have to face head-on in order to move on. The whole thing feels painfully believable, thanks in large part to the stunning performances of each of the young child actors. The characters are strong and real in ways that make you wish nothing but the best for them, so seeing them in these situations is very difficult. But they’re tigers, and they do their best.
Even without its supernatural elements, Tigers Are Not Afraid would have worked perfectly. The survival story of these kids is powerful by itself. But when those elements are added in, it makes everything resonate so much more. It either takes us on a journey through a child’s imagination and explains how one could justify such a brutal world, or shows a whole other world entirely. Either way, a brilliant new new level of drama and emotion gets layered onto the story. It’s a beautiful mixture and an even better film.