Shadowy figures come at night for their parents, leaving the children behind. The orphans band together to form an ad hoc family, worried that the monsters might return.
It sounds like something out of a horror movie. It sounds like something out of a fairy tale. It also sounds like a real-world account from the front lines of the Mexican drug war, where the cartels operate at will, “disappearing” innocent people.
The piercing brilliance of Issa Lopez’s “Tigers Are Not Afraid” is that it blends three genres — horror, child's fantasy and gritty crime drama — into an unsettling and evocative whole. While occasionally the ambition exceeds the execution, especially when it comes to visual effects, it’s the sorrowful heart of the movie that sees it through.
“Tigers Are Not Afraid” is playing at Marcus Point as part of a terrific film series for Hispanic Heritage Month, mixing Spanish-language versions of movies like “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” with Madison premieres of acclaimed films like “Monos” and the new Pedro Almodovar film, “Pain & Glory.”
The film opens on Estrella (Paola Lara), a young girl attending school in her Mexico City neighborhood. Gunfire breaks out outside, and the entire class hits the floor in fear. We sense that this is almost routine for students like Estrella, who struggle to maintain normal childhoods despite evil all around them. Onscreen text tells us that over 100,000 people in the city have died or gone missing during the drug war, turning "entire neighborhoods into ghost towns."
School is closed, and Estrella comes home to find an empty house. Her mother is gone. It’s here that we get our first taste of the supernatural, in the form of a trail of blood that snakes across the floor and up the walls around Estrella. Is it a trail she should follow, or run from?
Estrella meets up with a group of boys, also orphaned by the cartels, hiding out together in a makeshift clubhouse on the rooftops. Shine (Juan Ramon Lopez) is a tough kid who’s the leader of the gang, and has stolen a cell phone belonging to one of the cartel members. The phone has incriminating photos on it, incurring the wrath of the local cartel leader El Chino, but Shine refuses to part with it. His reasons, revealed later, makes for a surprisingly heartrending realization.
As the gang tries to stay one step ahead of the cartel, and Estrella searches for her mother, she experiences other bizarre visions. Dessicated hands reach out to her from sewer grates, imploring her to come find them. She hears her mother’s voice emanating from a soup container, like one end of a tin can telephone tethered to the world of the dead. Estella discovers she can sense danger before it arrives, and can make magical "wishes" — although those wishes can have terrible unintended consequences.
Not all of Estrella’s visions quite work cinematically, in particular a soiled stuffed tiger that seems to come to life (with the help of some dodgy CGI). But “Tigers are Not Afraid” is solid when it focuses on mood and character — with terrifically creepy locations like an abandoned, graffiti-smeared bathhouse for tension-filled scenes — and uses those supernatural moments as enhancements.
Lopez also finds moments of reverie, when the children get to remember that they are children. An abandoned mansion that the gang finds refuge in is full of wonders, like a crate full of bouncing balls, or a pond full of giant goldfish. The young cast is uniformly excellent, conveying how trauma and fear have hardened these kids, but not yet extinguished their innocence. As much death as they’ve seen, they still believe in fairy tales, and so does the movie.