Some of you may already know the name Issa Lopez. If not, you’re about to, because this week, Issa unleashes one of the most beautiful, grim “fairytales” you’ll ever see in Tigers Are Not Afraid…
…Lopez has been working in the industry since the late 90s/early 2000s, but with Tigers Are Not Afraid, is finally receiving the widespread attention she deserves. Written/directed by Lopez, the film is a painfully dark fairy tale revolving around a gang of children trying to survive on the streets of Mexico amidst the cartel, child trafficking, and an endless drug war. Everything seems hopeless, until Estrella (Paola Lara) arrives, a young girl who has been given the power to make three wishes, wishes which could change everything. But, as these stories often go, each wish has a price.
I seriously want to scream my excitement at the top of my lungs over the fact that we’re finally seeing more diverse directors in horror. Diversity is so important in film, and Lopez’s Tigers Are Not Afraid is the perfect example of why. With what’s going on in America right now, people need to understand what goes on beyond the Mexican border. They need to see what sorts of hardships people in Mexico face, so that they can understand the desperation of a people who are being drowned out by ignorant chants of “build that wall”. It’s astonishing that Lopez is able to capture so much pain and despair in such a wonderfully beautiful film.
Tigers Are Not Afraid is by no means you’re average fairy tale. The film opens on a class of children, including Estrella, being instructed to write their own fairytale. During this, we get a poetic voiceover from Estrella, telling her own story concerning a prince. That prince happens to be Shine (Juan Ramon Lopez), the leader of a street gang of young boys, who we meet holding a gun and contemplating shooting an enemy, a grown man, in the back of the head. And as Estrella tells this story, a shooting happens inside her school. And this is all within the first few minutes.
Lopez’s film is a poignant, dark story that paints a picture of a world ravaged by violence and evil. These kids live in a place where shootings are an everyday occurrence, where the smell of death hangs over the streets, and where beauty is hard to see, but can be found if you look in the right places. In that sense, Tigers Are Not Afraid is like every other fairytale, set in a place where evil has consumed a once prosperous land and the good must fight back, but this is no story for kids. Lopez is working on a powerful level here, and I’d dare to say this film nearly reaches the heights of a similar masterpiece, Pan’s Labyrinth. Tigers Are Not Afraid is Pan’s Labyrinth, set in the cruel streets of Mexico.
Like Pan’s Labyrinth, Tigers Are Not Afraid centers around young children dealing with adult problems. Estrella, Shine and the others have all found a new family in each other, because their parents have been taken away, and they dare not speak of what happens to the kids. I’ll give you a hint: it’s not pretty. Not even the cops are willing to help, as we witness in one scene, so these kids are completely on their own. And let me tell you, Lara and Lopez are astounding as Estrella and Shine. The most mature of the bunch, these two share an odd bond, not quite a romance because come on, they’re just kids, but more of a mother/father supportive role to the rest. They take care of the others, give them strength, and I lost count of how many times these two young talents threatened to snap my heart strings, they’re just that great.
To deal with their trauma, Estrella and the others have created stories, myths, around the gangs and what happened to their parents, in order to deal with what really happened. It’s easier to believe in mythical monsters and heroic tigers than it is to accept how evil the average person can truly be. And this is just part of what makes Tigers Are Not Afraid so special. Lopez has created a perfect blend of genre with this astonishing piece, mixing a coming of age story with a fantasy epic and a sprinkling of horror on top. Tigers Are Not Afraid, even with such a short runtime, plays out like a fantastical adventure set in modern times as the kids work towards standing up to Chino (Tenoch Huerta) and his wicked gang. And it’s one hell of an emotional journey, at that.
This film is a true experience that hits you on every emotional level. There is imagery in Tigers Are Not Afraid that will wreck you, such as kids in cages, kids covered in dirt, the bodies of kids left with toys in hand. Yet despite so much tragedy, Lopez is brilliant in finding the beauty inside of the darkest places. One of my favorites includes the kids stumbling upon an abandoned home, where a broken fish tank has spilled onto the floor, leaving gorgeous fish to swim in a small pond, free, as Shine puts it. This film is all about belief, whether it’s in yourself, in others, or in magic that you wish so badly to be real, even when things are most hopeless.
The problem, as Estrella discovers, is that the three magical wishes she’s given in the beginning and which she is determined to believe in, come at a high cost. If you’ve ever read The Monkey’s Paw, you get the idea. Wish for a dead loved one to come back, and they’ll come back, but as a corpse, and so on. Tigers Are Not Afraid is absolutely punishing in this regard, with chilling ghosts wrapped in body bags haunting Estrella just the tip of the iceberg of the problems her wishes create. For readers expecting a pure horror film, Tigers Are Not Afraid is not that, but that doesn’t mean this film isn’t horrific.
Tigers Are Not Afraid is a near perfect film, with the only blemishes being a goofy, digital tiger plush that pops up a few times, undercutting an otherwise serious moment, and the fact that the final confrontation with the evil of the film isn’t quite as satisfying as I’d hoped. But that’s just me. Regardless, Lopez has proven herself to be a powerful voice with Tigers Are Not Afraid, and I can’t wait to see what she’ll do next. This is easily one of the most breathtaking, tragic, beautiful filmic experiences I’ve had all year. If you’re heading out to see this one in theaters, bring the tissues. You’re going to need them.
Tigers Are Not Afraid is now playing in limited theaters, and will be streaming on Shudder later this year.
By Matt Konopka