TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID (VUELVEN) (2019)
Paola Lara, Juan Ramón López, Hanssel Casillas, Rodrigo Cortes, Ianis Guerrero
Directed by Issa López
Imagine “Goonies” fused with “Pan’s Labyrinth” with a little Cary Joji Fukunaga thrown in for tone and you’ll get an idea of what to expect from writer-director Issa López who delivers one of the best films of the year. “Tigers Are Not Afraid” tells the story of a group of children orphaned by the escalating drug war in Mexico, trying to survive on the streets while seeking retribution for their loss. Elements of horror and fantasy permeate the gritty drama that leaves the audience spellbound. This is powerful filmmaking at its best from the writer of 2015’s cartel thriller “600 Miles” starring Tim Roth.
The film opens with alarming statistics. Over the last decade, violence in Mexico has resulted in 160,000 deaths and 53,000 disappearances. In an instant, children become orphans as their parents are either killed or abducted. El Shine (Juan Ramón López) is one of those children. We first meet him in a dark alley tagging a building with his signature totem, a tiger. Minutes later he’s stalking a cartel member who is so drunk that El Shine surreptitiously snags his handgun and smartphone.
In a classroom, 10-year old Estrella (Paola Lara) sits at her desk writing a fairy tale when gunshots erupt in the hallway causing the students to take cover on the floor. As bursts of a semi-automatic echo outside the door, a cowering Estrella is given three pieces of chalk by her teacher who informs the frightened student that each piece grants her a wish like in a fairy tale. The calming mechanism works and luckily everyone makes it out alright. But as Estrella walks home from school, she once again encounters violence as a dead body lies in the middle of the sidewalk surrounded by yellow crime scene tape, another victim of the Huascas cartel.
There are many unforgettable visuals in the López film that give it a supernatural feel. As Estrella walks away from the corpse lying on the sidewalk, a trail of blood follows her home like a trickle of wax running down the side of a candle. Spirits of the cartel’s victims haunt the young girl, the images pulled straight out of a James Wan film.
Like Peter Pan’s Lost Boys, El Shine leads a group of homeless orphans who live in a makeshift camp on a building’s roof. Estrella, whose mother has gone missing, befriends the group after seeking food and shelter but before she’s allowed in, the boys make her take part in an initiation that involves the gun El Shine recently lifted off gang leader Caco (Ianis Guerrero) who becomes the Captain Hook of this harsh fairy tale.
Tigers are everywhere in the film. From the animated graffiti ones to a stuffed version carried by the youngest member of El Shine’s group, to the real thing that appears late in the film. The powerful cat is a symbol for the orphans who see themselves as tigers or warriors when in fact the hardened youth are still just innocent children, afraid but very brave.
“Tigers” is much more than just another gang film. The fantastical ambiance and talented young cast blended with the real war zone backdrop make for an unforgettable experience in a battle between good and evil. The film is uneven at times but López does an excellent job of keeping the storyline focused on the harsh reality of the dire situation faced by these kids. Powerful filmmaking.
Opens Friday, September 6 at Alamo Drafthouse LaCenterra (Houston) and Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar (Austin)