Fantasia Film Festival is underway, and if you’re attending, you may want to invest in a box of Kleenex before seeing Tigers Are Not Afraid (Spanish title: Vuelven). The profoundly moving film comes from writer/director Issa López, and follows a group of young children who have been personally victimized by the Mexican drug war.
By day, the children – most of whom have lost their parents or guardians due to the neverending violence – navigate the streets, strategically looking for food to keep each other from starving and expensive items they can steal and pawn for cash. By night, they sit by a fire, swapping stories of tigers and cutting up, allowing themselves the slightest bit of childhood normalcy that the vicious world they’ve been cast into will allow.
When Estrella (Paola Lara), a young girl with three magical wishes, becomes haunted by the spirit of her dead mother, she flees her lonely home in pursuit of food and company. She meets up with Shine (Juan Ramón López) and his gang, each of whom are Estrella’s age or younger, and together they try to hide from members of the cartel who are searching for them. With two wishes still intact and the spirits of the dead growing more aggressive, Estrella must decide whether she wants to keep running forever, or become the tiger of the fairy tale that the children recite to each other.
Tigers Are Not Afraid will undoubtedly draw comparisons to Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, which is surely the closest a film will come to matching this one in tone. Where del Toro’s film finds sorrow in history, though, López showcases the sadness and terror that children in Mexico are faced with today. Through its relevancy and layered craftsmanship, Tigers Are Not Afraid manages to rise above the comparisons that could have defined it, and stand not just as a film that’s reminiscent of a masterpiece, but as a masterpiece in its own right.
The supernatural elements of the film work exceptionally well, producing several images of visual terror that will surely resurrect themselves in my mind once the lights go out at night. That aspect of Tigers Are Not Afraid is not what’s most horrifying, however. It’s evidenced from the opening scene – when children of a classroom are forced to the floor as bullets tear through the glass windows – that the lives of these kids will be drawn from heartbreaking realism. Their dire fight for survival, even in the places where they’re meant to feel safe, is the brand of horror that hits close to home. The kind that is real and happening all over the world right now. Issa López isn’t content to simply explore the things that go bump in the night without also exposing the devils of daylight.
There’s an undeniable heaviness that is prevalent throughout Tigers Are Not Afraid, but at a lean 83-minutes, it doesn’t weigh the film down. With the combined elements of fairy tales and horror movies, in addition to the stellar performances from the cast of kids and the snappy, realistic chemistry between them (think Andy Muschietti’s It, but with less jokes and no reliance on nostalgia), López’s film moves briskly without sacrificing the emotional gratification of her powerful story. There are moments of devastation (that made my cry), but there are also moments of overwhelming beauty that lend a certain optimism to all the sadness.
We’re only halfway through 2018, but Tigers Are Not Afraid may prove to be my favorite film of the entire year. Equal parts heartbreaking and scary, this is a truly special film that will rattle you to your core.
For another writer’s thoughts on Tigers Are Not Afraid, hop on over here.
Want more from Fantasia Fest 2018?