Tigers Are Not Afraid starts in fact and ends in myth. Much like Pan’s Labyrinth, the film follows a girl (named Estrella and played by Paola Lara) who uses fantasy to deal with a grisly reality. In Pan’s Labyrinth, the reality was Franco’s Fascist rule of Spain. Tigers Are Not Afraid deals with a more recent nightmare: the drug wars in Mexico (title cards at the beginning of the film point out that no one knows many children have been murdered or orphaned during these wars). Like del Toro’s great film, Issa López’s mixes fantasy with reality. And like del Toro, the fantasy world is not a place of light, but of darkness.
While Pan’s Labyrinth dealt with the world of adults as well as children, however, Tigers Are Not Afraid focuses exclusively on the children, all of whom have been orphaned by the drug wars which killed their fathers and sold their mothers. In addition to Estrella, there’s Shine (Juan Ramón López), the leader of a group of orphans: Pop (Rodrigo Cortes), Tucsi (Hanssel Casillas), and Morro, who is mute and carries around a stuffed tiger.
The movie begins with Estrella writing a story about a prince who became a tiger, but has forgotten that he is a prince. And tigers are not afraid. As she narrates her tale, we see Shine steal a pistol and cell phone from Caco (Ianis Guerrero), a member of the local Huasca cartel, while Caco is drunkenly pissing in an alleyway. He points the gun at Caco’s head, but can’t pull the trigger. We then return to Estrella, where bullets ring out and the students dive under their desks. The teacher gives Estrella three pieces of chalk while she is on the floor and says, “These are wishes.” When Estrella gets back to her house, her mom isn’t there. We assume she hasn’t been home for some time. Estrella uses one of her wishes to wish that her mother would come home soon. Her mother does, as a frightening apparition out of Crimson Peak. But, like that terrifying ghost, she has some wisdom to impart to Estrella, though it’s cryptic. With nowhere to go, she joins Shine’s gang, who are soon hunted by Caco, wanting his phone back. This leads to a rooftop chase. While the gang agrees to take Estrella with them, their condition is that she kill Caco. She agrees to try, but once inside his house, she uses her second wish to find a way not to kill him. It comes true when she discovers he is already dead.
Who killed Caco? And what is on that phone? To reveal the answers would be to spoil the movie. Just like Estrella’s wishes, the resolutions in this film are unpredictable, but they are resolutions, and a large part of why this film is great is how tidily it resolves everything without resorting to clichés. Another part is the locations. Much of the action happens at night, in abandoned buildings, which cinematographer Juan Jose Saravia gives the right look for a film filled with ghosts and violence. And finally, there are the actors, particularly leads Juan Ramón López and Paola Lara, who are completely believable in their roles. For that, one must thank the director/writer/executive director Issa López. Ms. López is also smart in not trying to thrust a love story on us. Estrella and Shine grow to care about one another more as the movie progresses, but they are never lovers, and the friendship blossoms out of shared circumstances. Estrella’s mom was kidnapped by the same gang that burned down Shine’s house and gave him his facial scar. He wants revenge, but unlike tigers, he is afraid, and so is the audience for these kids.
When Guillermo del Toro saw this film in 2017, he put it on his top ten list for the year (at number 8) and offered to produce López’s next film. So far, however, this movie has no international release date, something that its distributor, Videocine, should rectify. Tigers Are Not Afraid is a minor miracle, and heralds a major new talent in the world of cinema.