Issa Lopez’s ‘Tigers Are Not Afraid’ Finds its U.S. Audience
Issa Lopez’ dark thriller Tigers Are Not Afraid isn’t afraid of being a giant bummer, and after two years on the genre film circuit it’s finally getting distribution outside Mexico thanks to Shudder. It’s also earned the thumbs up from the horror trinity of Stephen King, Guillermo del Toro, and Neil Gaiman. Set against the chaos of Mexico’s drug wars in an unnamed city, “Tigers” follows a group of street kids pursued by the local cartel over an important cellphone, with mysterious forces following their every turn.
Tigers Are Not Afraid holds its fairy-tale elements in defiance to the ultra-real poverty and fear its characters inhabit. In the first scene, a gun battle pins orphaned schoolgirl Estrella (Paola Lara) to her classroom floor, and her teacher hands her “three wishes”: a piece of chalk broken into three pieces. Meanwhile, street kid Shine (Juan Ramon Lopez) tags a symbolic tiger everywhere and steals a gangster’s phone because it holds the only photo of his dead mother. With the forgotten dead of the drug wars haunting them, their stories collide in an upside-down Neverland where the monsters are the cartel that drives out or kills the adults. Kids must become tigers and warriors to survive.
Writer-director Lopez skillfully tips her hat to the kids-vs-death trope from King’s It and Stand by Me. The cops are useless and grownups have moved away from the violence, but the camera stays tight on the childrens’ world as they shlep their belongings to the next gutted building, hold mock theater auditions, play soccer, and exhort the youngest to eat his peas.
The del Toro influence, especially from Pan’s Labyrinth, is even more obvious. The vengeful spirit world operates parallel to, and interacts with, real events and real (human) monsters, and orphans interact with this world to cope with trauma. Violent adults, a stuffed tiger who comes to life, a Labyrinthine dark fairy–no wonder del Toro is stanning the film, and now working on a werewolf Western with Lopez.
Tigers Are Not Afraid exhibits a wrenching torque between innocence and decimation. The kids play with police crime scene tape, scavenge for food and trade stories of loss among bullet-riddled backdrops symbolically strewn with abandoned roller skates and tricycles. Lopez plays up the apocalyptic feel with empty streets, burning pianos and rival kid gangs.
The film is pretty comfortable with morbidity outside the context of horror. It incorporates death into what I assume are meant to be tender moments, but they play out a little jarringly. Estrella is expected to sit around with a dead kid in a dark abandoned building to “take care of him,” then has what Lopez frames as a touching scene when she reunites with her mother’s moaning bloody beaten corpse wrapped in plastic.
The clunky subtitles broke up the dialogue with quotes around each line, so a two-line quote from one character looked like this:
“Don’t come to me later”
“saying you can’t sleep!”
Eventually, though, I was really happy for those subtitles. The shaky cam was so persistent, it was either anchor my eyes on them or ralph my nachos into my cupholder. While I respect the filmmaker’s apparent aim for a gritty wartime documentary vibe, nausea is not a gritty wartime feeling. The relentless queasy cam, far from communicating anxiety or uncertainty, seriously detracted from the story.
In the final scene, Estrella walks out of a cartel torture center into a sunny, grassy open field. Is it just another magical delusion to help her cope with the hard life of a street kid, or a hopeful metaphor for the bright future she might still have?
Don’t expect a happy ending with Lopez, who herself was orphaned at the age of eight. “I like a movie that starts bleak, gets bleaker, and then ends in hell,” she says. Ultimately, the kids are helpless in a dark world where only the supernatural can mete out justice. But there’s a beautiful image that counters all the hopelessness. In one abandoned building, the kids find a pond of fish living in a crater in the floor next to a smashed tank. When war destroyed their home, Lopez implies, they landed by chance in an unlikely niche that’s also the product of destruction. And they survived.