By Richard Ades
In most horror films, ghosts or other supernatural entities endanger the lives of ordinary people. In Tigers Are Not Afraid, there are supernatural entities galore, but the real danger comes from human beings.
The tale takes place in a Mexican city where the ongoing drug war has left many children to fend for themselves after their parents have been killed or have simply disappeared. Imaginatively written and directed by Issa Lopez, it’s scary and sad, but also mystical and inspirational.
We meet our adolescent heroine, Estrella (Paola Lara), in a classroom where her teacher assigns the students to write stories incorporating magical figures such as princes and, at one child’s suggestion, tigers. We then are engulfed in Estrella’s story, in which a boy steals a gang thug’s phone and pistol and contemplates shooting him but can’t—because, the narrator decides, he’s forgotten how to be a prince.
Suddenly, we’re dragged back into the classroom, where the sound of gunfire has forced the students to hit the floor. In the aftermath, the school is closed, and Estrella returns home to learn her mother has joined the ranks of missing parents. Hungry and destitute, she throws herself on the mercy of a ragtag group of orphaned boys led by the gruffly macho Shine (Juan Ramon Lopez).
Shine, it turns out, has recently stolen a gang thug’s phone and pistol. From this point on, Estrella’s life seems to merge with her unfinished tale. She also has entered a state of reality in which ghostly figures and portentous streams of blood intrude on the already-terrifying everyday world.
One of film’s most compelling storylines is the evolving relationship between Estrella and Shine’s followers. She quickly takes a maternal interest in the youngest boy, Morrito (Nery Arredondo), who clings for comfort to his little stuffed tiger. But others see girls as bad luck, and Estrella is ordered to prove her worth by killing the owner of the stolen phone, a gang member named Caco (Ianis Guerrero). When she uses a magical wish in an attempt to avoid the task, it backfires, putting all of them in the crosshairs of ruthless drug kingpin Chino (Tenoch Huerta Mejia).
As the plucky heroine, Lara sometimes underplays Estrella, perhaps suggesting that the girl is in shock or sleepwalking through the nightmarish predicament in which she’s been thrust. Leading the wonderful supporting cast, Lopez makes Shine a boyishly insecure leader who’s tormented by his fears, failures and losses.
Juan Jose Saravia’s cinematography unobtrusively melds the supernatural with the natural, turning the film into a prime example of Latin American “magical realism.” Vince Pope’s musical score provides the final complement to Lopez’s drama of children forced to live in a dangerous world not of their own making.
Seeing this fantasy-laden take on the real-life suffering of children is a devastating experience. But, as a morality tale and an innovative work of cinema, it’s also uplifting and unforgettable.
Rating: 4½ stars (out of 5)
Tigers Are Not Afraid (originally titled Vuelven) opens Sept. 13 at the Gateway Film Center in Columbus. The film is unrated but contains rough language and violence.