Written and Directed by: Issa López
Starring: Paola Lara, Juan Ramón López, Nery Arredondo
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"We forget who we are when things from outside come to get us."
Sometimes, the most effective horror movies are the ones that purposely retreat from being a horror movie. They create the illusion of safety and refuge not only for the characters but also the audience before shattering that illusion in the most gut-wrenching fashion imaginable. Sometimes, the illusions shielding us from horrors only heighten those horrors when they come roaring back to snap us back to reality. Issa Lopez masterfully weaves this tapestry of illusion and reality with Tigers Are Not Afraid, a magical realist exploration of ground-level cartel warfare experienced through the eyes of orphaned children left to rummage through ghost towns. They’re forced to hide in the illusory comfort of both fairy tales and the fantastic dreams they hold for their shattered lives whose pieces lay scattered about as fragmented memories of the lives they once had and will never have again. All they can do is shore the fragments against their ruins and hope to live another day and create more illusions.
Following the disappearance of her mother, Estrella (Paola Lara) falls in with a quartet of fellow street orphans led by the heartbreakingly cynical Shine (Juan Ramón López). Armed only with her wits and a magical piece of chalk that supposedly grants three wishes, Estrella helps the boys navigate a hellscape of the feuding drug lords that claimed their parents’ lives. They’re in the possession of a phone that both factions are desperate to recover, forcing the kids into constant confrontation with the ruthless gangsters who have no qualms about kidnapping or killing children if need be. Estrella in particular is also quite literally haunted by the spirit of her absent mother, not to mention another supernatural force that follows her and twists her wishes into horrifying nightmares.
Lopez deftly never confirms whether Estrella’s supernatural experiences are real or a coping device inspired by a school project requiring her to write a fairy tale (until school is closed following a shootout, at least). The storytelling device frames Tigers Are Not Afraid in ambiguous terms, opening the possibility that Estrella has conjured these magical elements as a coping device. In the face of such unrelenting misery--including an episode where Shine enlists her to shoot one of the cartel boogeymen--it makes sense that she’d frame herself as the hero in a story without any heroes. We gravitate towards storytelling precisely because it brings order to chaos; as children, stories often reinforce that the world is ultimately a just place. There is little justice in Estrella’s world outside of what she hopes to control either through action or fantasy. But it must be noted that the magic is not exactly the whimsical sort capable of transporting Estrella to another plane of existence away from the horrors of her life. Rather, it’s couched as part of the gritty, grimy texture of a life spent among flaming, blood-stained streets, which suggests the impossibility of a real escape. I am reminded of Romero’s Martin: “there’s no real magic ever.”
Estrella shares a more powerful fantasy with her companions, one that would allow them to live out their days in something approaching bliss. They dream of finding a mansion with a zoo and a soccer field, even if Shine is too jaded to admit such a thing can exist. Imagine his--and everyone’s--surprise, though, when they do find an abandoned home with a natural fish pond and plenty of space to play soccer. Close enough, and, in this situation, close enough is really all you have. The film’s most breathtaking sequence unfolds here when the children, lost in momentary bliss, play on their makeshift field, their constant fear and dread shed just long enough to convince them--and the audience--that maybe this is possible. Maybe they can have the lives all children deserve. Maybe the horrors they’ve endured can eventually recede into the rearview mirror. It’s remarkable how Lopez transports the audience just far enough away from the horrors that dominate Tigers Are Not Afraid in an effort to lull them into a sense of security and fantasy alongside her characters.
Equally remarkable--but much more cruel--is the way Lopez shatters the illusion with a horrifying, heartbreaking sequence that dispels the magic. Deception is a constant cohort of horror filmmaking, and Lopez harnesses it to devastating effect here, setting off a brutal chain of events, each more upsetting than the last. Once these children have a hold on their fantasy, you don’t want to see it ripped away from them, much less in the brutal fashion on display here. There’s nothing more horrific than the death of a child, and Lopez’s camera refuses to flinch. What’s more, it lingers on these horrific images in a confrontational manner; far from exploitative, it comes from a place of righteous indignation. We must confront these horrific images because to deny them or ignore them would be the actual fantasy. Tigers Are Not Afraid is a tough watch, so much so that it has immediately joined my ranks of incredible movies that I will be wary about revisiting.
But that’s also the point, of course. You can’t blunt the edges of a real-world horror such as this, which unfolds even as a type this and will continue to unfold after you’re finished reading this review. How long it continues to unfold will be up to everyone that’s allowed it to happen either through direct complicity or apathy. Tigers Are Not Afraid is not an explicit call to arms, but I don’t know how any empathetic person could watch it and not be completely unnerved by the harsh realities it illuminates. For a film that’s wrapped up in fantasy, it feels so starkly authentic, shot with an almost guerrilla style that leans on the staggeringly convincing performances from its child actors. Lara and López especially have a gravitas far beyond their years, both of them commanding the screen like seasoned veterans. In both, you sense loss, desperation, but also the faintest glimmer of hope. Even Shine, who is doggedly cynical, has moments of childlike glee, including one that’s intertwined with the gruesome fate of the drug kingpin that’s haunted his life.
That, ultimately, is the essence of Tigers Are Not Afraid, a film that recognizes that fantasy, horror, dreams, and crushing reality weave a complex tapestry. Like Guillermo del Toro and Victor Erice before her, Lopez has also woven real-world atrocities into her fabric; however, hers doesn’t have the distance of history to make these horrors feel less immediate. It’s most remarkable then, that hope is another thread that Lopez impossibly clings to during the film’s surprisingly ethereal resolution. Somehow, the misery relents, suggesting that, maybe, there is some magic after all. That’s a fantasy worth believing.
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