Published Oct 12, 2018Tigers Are Not Afraid seamlessly blends magical realism with the stark brutality of poverty-stricken slums. It's one of those films blessedly becoming more common as horror edges toward consideration as a "respectable" genre: a beautiful, cinéma vérité-inspired narrative drama with supernatural threats that pale in comparison to the human ones. Equal parts Children of God with a sprinkling of Pan's Labyrinth, every shot in Tigers Are Not Afraid is heartbreakingly lovely and terrifying, in more ways than one.
Estrella (Paola Lara), a young Mexican girl, returns home when her school is closed after a vicious shooting and discovers that her mother has gone missing. Hungry and lonely, Estrella wanders the streets and soon crosses paths with a scrappy orphan named Shine (Juan Ramón López) and his band of other homeless boys. Initially reluctant to adopt a girl into their ranks, Shine and crew eventually join forces with the tough and capable Estrella. But as the children attempt to survive amidst ruthless gang violence, corruption and drug dealers who don't hesitate to torture and kill, Estrella becomes plagued by mysterious forces that don't seem quite human.
The supernatural monsters in Tigers Are Not Afraid feel entirely born of this ugly world — bodies that drip sentient trails of blood, reanimated dead women and children wrapped in plastic, disembodied hands creeping out of trash cans and sewers. We're never quite sure if these visions are real or imaginary, but López heavily implies that whatever Estrella is seeing, it's born from horrors that exist in real life.
Like the protagonist of Pan's Labyrinth, the children of Tigers Are Not Afraid cling to fairy tales and their own invented folk myths to cope, like the battered plush tiger toy they pretend is their fierce protector. Their makeshift rooftop shelter is full of more abandoned toys, found objects and rudimentary tools constructed from pieces of garbage. It reads like a dystopian landscape — the setting is darkly fantastical, with its empty streets and elaborate graffiti adorning crumbling buildings. But the touches of whimsy, like golden snakes that slink off handguns, exist within a world that's all too real. When the children discover a stolen phone with incriminating videos that implicate a corrupt politician in league with the cartels, the film explodes with violence that's far more harrowing than any amount of ghostly voices.
There's grace and wonder in every shot, especially ones that illustrate the beauty that exists within the pockets of this brutal world, like glittering goldfish swimming in puddles in a derelict mansion. It's a welcome respite from the horrific bleakness of Tigers Are Not Afraid, for both the audience and the characters — although we know, no matter how hard they try, these children can't ever escape it.