Tigers are not Afraid
Paola Lara, Juan Ramón López
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…so transcendent, so beautiful and so moving.
Opening with alarming statistics of the drug cartel violence that has besieged Mexico (160,000 dead and over 50,000 missing), Tigers are not Afraid layers magic realism against a gut-churningly bleak landscape of the orphaned children of the dead, roaming the ruined streets of an unnamed city run by human traffickers and the assorted scum that exist on the periphery of the drug cartel’s battleground.
Young teenager Estrella (Paola Lara) is alone, her mother murdered. Having no family or means of getting food, she meets the wiley Shine (Juan Ramón López), a young boy who leads a small gang of children (in a very deliberate Peter Pan and the Lost Boys reference) that he protects as they evade kidnappers who hunt them, intent on selling them into child-sex rings.
The youngest child in the group, 4-year-old Morro (Nery Arredondo), doesn’t speak because of the horrors he’s witnessed. Estrella becomes something of a ‘Wendy’ to the group, looking after the younger ones, while lamenting the loss of her own mother whom she ‘wishes’ back to life and whose zombie-like visage haunts Estrella, who begins to believe that her wishes are corrupted, always manifesting in dark and unexpected ways.
When Estrella finds local criminal Caco (Ianis Guerrero) dead in his home, she tells the group she did it to gain their trust. This results in the group being targeted by Caco’s associates and the children find themselves running scared.
Throughout the film, there are moments of tenderness and subtle beauty, with flourishes of magical creatures, inanimate objects coming to life as well as communicating with the dead, whose spirits exist amongst the living. The unrelenting bleakness does shift the tone into horror territory on a few occasions though the young cast are all terrifically capable and engaging and its strange and terrible beauty never once compromises or yields to the safety of tropes or cliché.
Much like Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, in setting the fantasy world of these children’s imaginations against such a bitterly brutal reality, something else is created within the juxtaposition. It’s precisely the beauty this film finds in the unrelenting darkness of its subject matter that makes it so transcendent, so beautiful and so moving.