One of the buzziest releases of the year, Issa López’s Tigers Are Not Afraid is a haunting, dark fairy tale that uses striking cinematography and dynamite special effects to explore childhood trauma through the lens of magical realism. It’s a film unafraid to go to dark places and dig in deep, showcasing a kind of horror that is at once all too real and the stuff of our worst collective nightmares: the violent death of children.
Estrella (Paola Larsa) is a young girl living with her mother in a city gutted and devastated by the Mexican Drug War. When her school is shot up during a gang skirmish, Estrella is gifted three pieces of magical chalk by her teacher. Each piece will grant her one wish. After her mother vanishes, Estrella uses her first wish bring her back, unaware of what she has awoken. Estrella’s mother does indeed return, only as a terrifying specter of her former self, causing Estrella to take to the streets and join up with a coterie of homeless boys led by cynical, traumatized Shine (Juan Ramon López). In them, Estrella finds friendship, protection, and a chance to uncover what really happened to her mother.
Tigers is stuffed to the gills with talent, from the lovable and believable child actors to the smooth, succinct script that not only blends the fantastical with gritty reality, but also balances full-body terror with moments of heart and humor. The production design is also breathtaking, and the special effects used to create the wraith-like ghosts and Shine’s graffiti tigers blend seamlessly into the real, an impressive fear given the film’s relatively modest budget.
You’d never know that Tigers was made on the cheap, so rich and well crafted is the atmosphere and the techniques used to bring the story to life, often to chilling effect. The makeup of the undead ghouls that shadow Estrella, and the swerving, seemingly sentient trail of blood that slithers and snakes behind her after her first wish unnerve and unsettle, leaving us squirming with visions of horrific deaths and a pervading sense of wrongness. Combine all this with an excellent cast perfectly attuned to their roles and the result is one of the year’s most essential films.
Tigers Are Not Afraid is a magical, momentous film that uses its supernatural elements not for cheap jump scares, but to heighten the human drama at the center of the story and the question of how desperate children survive in a dangerous and violent world when stripped of their support networks. As such, it is a tale of resilience and defiance in the face of destruction–as the film’s ominous and menacing tone make clear–but it is also about the power of hope that can be sparked in a shared human experience, and the transcendent magic that can arise if that spark is fueled properly. See this film at your earliest convenience. Find your chalk. Don’t be afraid.
Tigers Are Not Afraid
5 – Totally Terrifying 4 – Crazy Creepy
- 3 – Fairly Frightening
2 – Slightly Scary 1 – Hardly Horror