The original, Spanish title for the Mexican film Tigers Are Not Afraid was Vuelven, which translates to They Come Back. This feels a bit like an American marketing tactic to obscure how grim this story really is, and instead focus on fierce bravery. Never mind the fact that said bravery is among children orphaned by Mexican drug cartels and living on the streets of city neighborhoods turned into ghost towns.
To call this movie “haunting” is an understatement, and I mean that as a compliment. It didn’t even occur to me until it was over that this can fit comfortably within the horror genre, albeit a sort of fantastical version of it. This is the kind of movie Guillermo del Toro should be aspiring to. But instead of a twisted love story set in a dark fantasy world, this is a dark fantasy that reflects a profoundly bleak reality.
Clocking in at a brisk 83 minutes, writer-director Issa López gets right to the point, opening in a classroom where the children are tasked with writing a fairy tale — which Tigers Are Not Afraid then becomes. Gunfire is heard outside and the students and the teacher all get on the floor. The teacher hands Estrella (Paola Lara) three pieces of chalk and declares them three wishes. When Estrella’s mother later disappears at the hands of local drug lords and she makes a wish for her mother to come back, the wish comes true, but not quite in the way she wanted.
There are shades of the W.W. Jacobs short story The Monkey’s Paw here, although it remains to be seen whether Issa López is even familiar with it. López isn’t offering any lesson about interfering with fate. There is an altogether different purpose to the dead returning to 10-year-old Estrella (hence the Spanish title). Some viewers may want to brace themselves for the stark turns this story takes, with death being a constant reality for all involved, including the gang of children at the center of the proceedings. In one case, a child’s stuffed tiger returns along with him, now alive and apparently here to help, a strangely comforting presence with its regular purring under perilous circumstances.
The apparently supernatural elements of Tigers Are Not Afraid are used with subtlety and sparingly, which is a big part of what gives it a uniquely hypnotic power. These kids are on their own in mostly empty neighborhoods, scavenging for food and hiding from unscrupulous murderers, much of the time in once-grand abandoned buildings. And then wall graffiti of a tiger might suddenly be animated, or a bat-sized dragon might fly out of a cell phone. A thin line of blood slowly flows in straight lines around indoor spaces toward characters in fatal danger. In any case, it is all shot with stark, often beautiful precision. The kids, all of them amateurs with no prior acting experience, have a peculiarly raw screen presence.
The drug lords who are after them are given no real story of their own, beyond them looking for the cell phone stolen by the kid gang’s de facto leader, Shine (Juan Ramón López). There is no background there, and otherwise no real backstory for the kids either, except that they have all been orphaned by the drug war. All of that is besides the point, given how present these kids always have to be in the here and now. It was hard not to think about this when the gang buries one of their own, how as far as the rest of the world is concerned, that kid may as well have never existed. Who will remember him now? These kids live in functionally post-apocalyptic circumstances. Consider the many kids in other parts of the world for whom that is their lived reality.
Spoiler alert, there are no happy endings here, not really. Tigers Are Not Afraid offers a fantasy world in which a few select villains reap what they sow, but at a terrible cost, and if you think about it, the world they leave behind remains unchanged. The upside is merely the power of storytelling, giving lost children a voice. Issa López is certainly a distinctive voice in cinema, someone whose work I hope we see more of. It’s not often someone can lure me in with what essentially amounts to ghosts and zombies, but they feel different because their use and function are so imbued with meaning, however despairing it may be,