These are not Dickensian street urchins. They are the orphans of Mexico’s drug wars. They survive hand-to-mouth on the streets, constantly fleeing the victorious drug cartel of sadistic Satanists. Yeah, maybe building that wall doesn’t sound so bad anymore. Regardless, fairy tales do not get much darker than Issa Lopez’s Tigers Are Not Afraid (trailer here), which screens during this year’s FrightFest in the UK.
Estrella is on her own. Her school was closed indefinitely after getting riddled with bullets. Soon thereafter, her mother failed to come home one night. The implications are obvious in Estrella’s world, but she remains in denial for what seems like weeks. Eventually, hunger forces her to seek the company of a local gang of misfits, but their leader Shine is instinctively hostile to an older potential rival.
Nevertheless, she will earn her place in the pack when she apparently completes a rather daring task, but the truth is rather more complicated. Regardless, she inadvertently antagonizes the cartel affiliated with the local political boss, as a result. On top of that, Estrella also has weird visions—or perhaps they really are supernatural visitations.
Lopez loads up TANA heavy fairy tale symbolism involving princesses, tigers, serpents, protective chalk, and magical wishes. However, since there is so much quasi-magical realism going on in the margins, none of the individual elements feels excessive or over-wrought. You will rarely hear this here, but this is a case where more was more.
Frankly, it is pretty amazing how much Lopez pulled off on a presumably limited budget. At times, it all looks too self-contained to the brain, as if five or six cartel death cultists massacred the tens of thousands of people living in Estrella’s demilitarized zone of a neighborhood. Yet, the limited and interconnected cast of characters definitely feels apiece with the fairy tale vibe.
Lopez also gets fantastic work out of her young ensemble. Paola Lara is rock solid as the smart but frighteningly vulnerable Estrella. However, the revelatory standout is Juan Ramon Lopez, who is so intense as Shine, it is downright spooky. The various abandoned buildings and scarred urban backdrops also give the film quite a bit of sinister character. The mere fact that Lope had so many such locations available to her is terrifying in its own right.
So, maybe with drug wars raging in Mexico, this isn’t such a great time to abolish ICE after all—or maybe we can just replace it with magic chalk and wishes. These are not idle musings. Despite the fantastical elements, there is an undeniable urgency to TANA. If you want to understand a country’s dark collective subconscious, look at their genre films. In this case, Lopez dares viewers to confront Mexico’s lost generation of drug war orphans and the highly uncertain future they share with the nation. Yet, we still connect with these kids on an emotional level. Highly recommended, Tigers Are Not Afraid screens tonight (8/26), as part of this year’s FrightFest UK.