TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID ***** Mexico 2017 Dir: Issa Lopez. 83 mins
Writer-director Issa Lopez’s fourth feature film is an extraordinary story of childhood and the need for childish escapism – for both its juvenile protagonists…and us, the adult audience. A sobering opening stat hammers home the harsh reality that the story never shirks: 160,000 people have been killed in Mexico’s drug wars in the last decade. The opening sequence encapsulates the tone of everything that follows: schoolkids create their own fairy tales in class before external, close-by gunshots send them cowering under their desks while their teacher tries to keep them calm in the comfort of fantasy. Classes are suspended and the school closed – another victim of the drug wars that rage on. Young Estrella (Paola Lara, like the rest of the young cast, an actress with no past experience) arrives home to find her mother gone – taken, like so many, by the cartels. Estrella’s teacher offers her three “wishes” and she takes the opportunity to bring her mum back but, in the classic horror vein of “The Monkey’s Paw”, this is destined to not go as desired. She ultimately becomes the only girl in a gang of young orphans who play, eat and sleep on the streets and offer her food and solace. The kids have also got hold of an incriminating cell phone that the imposing El Chino (Tenoch Huerta) is desperate to retrieve. are desperate to get back.
The missing posters and boarded-up windows of the gritty modern backdrop are consistently balanced by the humour of the kids’ interplay. Their backgrounds are sketched swiftly and credibly, while the dialogue captures their naivety (“They’re narco-Satanists!”), their pop culture reference points (Disney princesses, THE LORD OF THE RINGS) and the authentic ways they pass the time: staging makeshift talent shows, pulling faces at each other in the torchlight, crafting a thoughtful backstory for a loyal stuffed tiger companion. The film’s magic-realism and Mexican backdrop have earned inevitable comparisons to Del Toro, but few films have juggled horror / fantasy tropes with such authentic humour, tenderness and social awareness. It’s driven by astonishingly naturalistic performances from the kids but Lopez is remarkably disciplined in her storytelling and seamless pulls off the major tonal shifts. One sequence conveying how the young protagonists deal with the death of a friend might be the most heart-breaking thing on screen this year. For all the shocking violence and reminders of the unpredictability of all things, the final scene finds hope and defiance against all the odds…and the film earns it more than most. “There are no wishes, not even tigers…we’re all there is…”
Review by Steven West