The telescopic lens of childhood is often more kaleidoscopic than illuminating.
Our perception as a child is limited to our vague knowledge and inability to process heavy emotions or rationalize the horrors of the world around us. Instead, we slip inside the comforts of fantasy and imagination.
It’s in this fictitious halfway-verse that so many great films about young children and their inarticulate ordeals exist. From glam oddities like Return To Oz (1985) and Time Bandits (1981) to numerous Japanese anime classics, cinema’s creative/fantastical element lends itself naturally to the process of a child just trying to make sense of it all.
Now add to the list Issa Lopez’s startling and brilliant Tigers Are Not Afraid. Not to be outdone by other films whose younger protagonists are struggling with the loss of a parent or divorce, Lopez places her crew of adolescents in a literal Mexican City hell where everyone’s parents are either missing or tortured and killed by the local drug cartel. In fact, we first meet young Estrella (Paola Lara) within her own version of hellish purgatory, living alone in her house simply waiting for a mother who will never return. The young girl’s misery is exacerbated because the house seems to be haunted . . . something Estrella runs away from into the trash-lined streets every time the ominous shadow and hoarse whisper makes itself known.
Pushed to the brink of starvation, Estrella tries to fend for herself when she meets 8 year old Shine (Juan Ramon Lopez) and his rag-tag group of equally young survivors living on the rooftops, overlooking the squalor and violence below. Complicating their own survival (besides the fact a girl wants to join their group) is the fact that young Shine has recently stolen a cell phone from one of the cartel members that holds some damning episodes of violence. Between the children’s growling stomachs and an equally pervasive adult threat, Tigers Are Not Afraid becomes an act of forced family more than anything else.
And it’s the relationship between the children that becomes the beating heart of the film. Evoking strong performances that never feel work shopped or designed, Lopez’s film strikes at the morose atmosphere because we care for these children so much. We want them to survive and become just as hollowed at the stinging violence and carelessness around them as they seem to feel.
However, despite Lopez’s intention to build sympathy and attachment to her young characters, her skills integrating the more grotesque aspects of her story never slide too far away. The visions of something or someone stalking Estrella are equally terrifying in naturalistic ways that films like those of James Wan never quite attain. Lopez’s ghosts are dripping, moldy and black…. like a combination of ancient bodies risen from the grave dipped in the ferocious memories of a young girl afraid of the dark. The film also elicits chills by a seemingly endless trail of blood following Estrella wherever she goes. If ghosts are real and they’re imprints of emotions or energy upon a time or location, Lopez strikingly elicits this tangible refusal of the spirits to let go of the young children left behind, fending for themselves. I can’t think of a more literal definition of “horror” story than that.
Tigers Are Not Afraid opens in limited release in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday, August 30.