When I first picked Tigers Are Not Afraid (Spanish title: Vuelven) to review for this year’s Boston Underground Film Festival, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. But after watching the trailer and seeing the 100% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, I couldn’t wait to start watching this flick. Is that perfect rating true in my opinion? Or was I sorely disappointed?
Tigers Are Not Afraid was written and directed by Issa López (Sucedió en un día 2010), who took a break from the romantic comedy genre to offer up this dark, gritty fairy tale. Produced by Marco Polo Constandse (Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Vol. 2) and Tania Benítez (Road to Mars 2017), the film’s score was composed by Vince Pope (Misfits TV series), while the visual effects were coordinated by Alejandra García Zúñiga (Diablo Guardían 2017). The film is cast with talented young actors including Paolo Lara (La Siberia 2017), Hanssel Casillas (Yago 2016), Nery Arredondo (Come dice el dicho 2014) and newcomers Juan Ramón López and Rodrigo Cortes. Ianis Guerrero (Club of Crows TV series), Tenoch Huerta (Get the Gringo 2012) also star.
We are in some northern border. Any of them. All of them. Estrella is 10 years old and has 3 wishes: The first one, that her missing mother comes back and it happens. Her mother returns, but she is dead and follows Estrella everywhere. Petrified, Estrella tries to escape from her by joining a gang orphaned by violence. Soon she realizes that dead are never left behind and when you are in the middle of brutality and violence, wishes never come true the way you want them to be.
Tigers Are Not Afraid is a beautiful urban fairy tale, as dark and dangerous as anything from the Brothers Grimm. The story does not take place in Germany’s Black Forest however, but instead in the congested, dirty, dusty back alleys of an unknown Mexican city. Everything is told from the eyes of some very young children – both in age and in actions. These orphans must survive the things this city throws at them, and to do so, they have to make some pretty grown up choices. Most of those decisions are made by the leader of the group, young Shine, a character played brilliantly by first time actor, Juan Ramón López.
The boys – Shine, Pop (Rodrigo Cortes), Tusci (Hanssel Casillas) and the tiny Morro (Nery Arredondo) – must survive drug lords, gangs, starvation, the police and even each other. It’s grueling and it’s uncomfortable and it’s heartfelt. These are not words I would generally use to describe a horror film, but Tigers Are Not Afraid hits on every one of those points and more. The camaraderie between the boys is natural, and it’s so gratifying to see kids acting like real kids. They wrestle on the floor, draw on each other in marker, play with stuffed animals and refuse to eat their veggies. They’ve figured out how to take care of themselves and even thrive in the city’s forgotten places.
Enter the recently orphaned 10-year-old Estrella (Paolo Lara), a stranger and a girl. This monkey wrench is not to be taken lightly by the guys, who feel the same way you’d expect pre-teen boys to feel about girls. Not to mention that this girl is being followed by the ghost of her dead mother after she made a Monkey’s Paw-esque wish to have her back. But when all of the children realize that they all have a common enemy – the group of sociopathic gang members that killed their parents and kidnapped their siblings – they decide to let her in. As they grow closer, Estrella and Shine must figure out when – and on whom – to use her remaining wishes.
Much like 2009’s Ink, del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth and even Stephen King’s IT, Tigers Are Not Afraid drops small, young children into mystifying and perilous situations where adults can be the scariest monsters of them all. But these naive souls find joy in the most unexpected of places. A box of soccer balls, a tattered stuffed animal, a rusty tricycle, a dusty stage, a puddle of water… it’s these simple things where the children find happiness in their lives. Most of the time, they actually are happy, despite their unfortunate circumstances. It’s this unadulterated joy that takes these kids from forgettable movie characters to empathetic, standout individuals that I actually cared about from the get go.
There’s also the film’s title. Tigers are an icon for tough, burdened, scarred Shine. The magic he invokes into the idea of becoming one of these huge, merciless maneaters is enchanting, despite – or because of – his small size. He covers everything with the face of his spirit animal, using its image to inspire and strengthen his resolve, as he says over and over, “Tigers are not afraid.”
The magic in Tigers Are Not Afraid is a part of its supernatural charm. Drawings come to life and bound across the screen. Stuffed animals lead our heroes away from danger. Tiny, flying dragons appear when encouragement or support is needed. There’s also the seemingly sinister blood trail that follows Estrella from the moment she sees her first dead body, and the creaking, clicking, jerky ghost of her shrouded mother, who talks to her daughter through empty cups and bare walls, pleading with her to bring her the man behind the neighborhood murders. The ghost is both creepy and maternal at the same time, making her intentions unclear until the very end.
I absolutely loved Tigers Are Not Afraid. I could go on talking about it all day. Yes, it’s in Spanish, so you’ll have to read subtitles, but it’s totally worth it. Although it’s not a horror film per se, it does remind us of the real life horror of homeless orphans living in the streets of third world nations, scavenging off scraps, with no one to defend them or teach them to be contributing members of society. It’s disturbing, heartbreaking and frustrating, but at the same time, hopeful. The ending shocked me more than I can say, and I was left with a pit in my stomach for hours after the credits rolled. Do yourself a favor and watch Tigers Are Not Afraid. You won’t regret it.