Tigers Are Not Afraid (2019)
Written & Directed by Issa Lopez
It’s hard not to be struck with the influence Guillermo Del Toro has had on this film and a handful of contemporary Mexican cinema. Tigers Are Not Afraid is full to the brim with knowing nods to The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. While Del Toro often uses the past as a setting to examine his ideas of innocence and darkness, writer-director Issa Lopez chooses the contemporary cartel crisis as the stage for her story. My biggest problem when we compare these works is that Tigers Are Not Afraid has issues with pacing that cut through what should be white-knuckle tension. This is a story about children in peril, men chasing after them with the intent to kill, and there are a lot of moments where this feeling is not conveyed on screen.
The decision to set a dark children’s fantasy in the heart of the ongoing drug cartel conflict is brilliant. This is a situation that has affected and continues to do so for so many children in Mexico. The fear of children is the core of horror. As a school teacher, I have found my students flocking to while being simultaneously repelled by age-appropriate horror texts. When you are a child, horror media is a powerful thing because it allows you to confront your fears while being able to shut them off or close them when it becomes too much. Horror is a way people cope with trauma. It’s more palatable to a fragile mind to imagine a monstrous figure being responsible for your suffering than an adult whom you expect that you can trust.
Estrella is a young girl living in an unnamed Mexican city. She goes to school, living under a cloud of gang violence. One day, while the students are being asked to compose their own fairy tales, a gunfight erupts just outside the walls of the school. While lying on the ground in terror as bullets rain outside, Estrella’s teacher hands her three pieces of chalk, telling her these are wishes just like in the stories the children are writing. When Estrella returns home, her mother is gone, and by nightfall, she hasn’t returned. Estrella makes a wish on one of these chalk pieces for her mother to come back, and something sinister enters the apartment. Later, the girl meets Shine and his band of lost boys, children affected by the cartels who have formed a makeshift family group. Shine is reluctant to allow Estrella to become a part of the group but eventually relents. This group of children begins to realize they are in the middle of a sinking pit of darkness, seemingly destined to be either victims or killers.
The weaving of horror-fantasy and the gritty realism of the situation in Mexico is very uneven. Long stretches occur where the story focuses purely on the plight of these children with little regard to the fantasy elements that were set up earlier. I like that when the fantasy tropes are employed, it’s not in an escapist way but rather to heighten the horror of the situation. I just wish we’d seen more interplay between these two views of reality. When the movie hits the end of the second act, going into the third, it reveals a filmmaker who is not afraid to show the brutal reality of the lives of those orphaned by the cartel. These moments are where the heart of the picture is revealed, and our investment in these characters leaves us with an ache for some ray of hope to shine down on them.
Lopez definitely understands that the intent of the original fairytales was as a contextualizing of everyday horrors, cautionary tales to ward children off foolish decisions and away from dangerous people. It’s a perfect fit for this particular moment in time in this specific place. I just wish Lopez had examined Del Toro’s work a little more closely for how he integrates such contrasting points of view to create stories that traverse realities more organically. The final act of Tigers Are Not Afraid is near perfect, but getting there can some times feels like a slog, a story that holds its best elements away from the viewer in an unsatisfying manner.