Film Review: Tigers Are Not Afraid
By Erik Nielsen
Reminiscent of Guillermo Del Toro’s Pans Labyrinth, sprinkled with disparate parts of City of God and Stand By Me. Issa Lopez’s Tigers Are Not Afraid takes fantastical story elements, monsters, ghouls, old tales that are passed down from generations to address relevant political issues - with a group of young orphans on the run from violent cartel members and corrupt government officials. The drug war in Mexico takes lives every day and in this grim tale, the kids are forced to deal with the ghosts.
The film does not embrace the colorful frames of what came before it, like Pan’s Labyrinth, but instead, strips it down to gritty, handheld camerawork. In a Mexico that resembles a town forgotten by time, here is a country amid their own apocalypse. The cartels in this film do daily raids and kidnappings, killing innocent civilians for sport. The opening scene is a school classroom forced to huddle to the ground as a barrage of bullets causes hellfire through the window.
Palo Lara plays the main protagonist Estrella - who impressed alongside Hugh Jackman in Logan - packs a similar ferocity. Here she is broken but determined, unsure of why her mother continues to call upon her from the grave, a zombie-like ghoul that haunts her when she sleeps. Estrella was orphaned by the drug war like her 4 counterparts, led by the charismatic Shine (Juan Ramon Lopez) who goes around stealing phones and guns from members of the local cartels while they drunkenly piss in the streets. Together they form a strong coalition as they go from one place to the next, hoping to ensure their survival.
A trail of blood follows Estrella, this blood “from the war outside that will follow” she says, represents the repercussions of the drug war and those innocent lives that are caught in the crossfire. Everything the blood, that only she can see, touches, turns out dead. The blood acts as a warning for Estrella too and she’s able to warn the other kids when the cartel is near and eventually, her mother calls upon her to exact revenge.
The film is brutal in its depiction of violence and how kids are forced to become adults. It’s also worrisome that the director decides how the kids are empowered by guns and are enacted to commit more acts of terror. Ultimately forced into a final showdown at an abandoned theatre where the cartel members ambush them. Even without the ghosts and ghouls, this film would still be terrifying.
The best moments, however, are those where the kids can be kids. Our only glimpse into what could’ve been for these young orphans. Putting on pretend talent shows and acting on their now innocent impulses amidst the rubble of destroyed buildings and abandoned towns. But it’s also melancholic because we know what violence lingers just around the corner.
“The prince is no longer a prince, he has forgotten what it’s like.” are the opening lines of the film and in this story, there are no princes, only the children who have lost what is meant to be a child. They’ve taken up together, living on rooftops and alleyways, fending off gangsters and stealing what little food they can. That’s the tragedy at the heart of the story. The real-life circumstances and statistics of the bloody, cartel wars, creates a grim reality for a story that takes fantastical measures. It’s more than just a Brothers Grimm-esque tale, it’s a wake-up call - hundreds of kids, every day, are turned into orphans. This film is a reminder of the chaos faced by those who are caught in the middle of a bloody and thankless war.