Every now and then, a movie comes along that becomes a hit through not a big budget marketing campaign, but an insanely good amount of buzz that’s strictly word of mouth. And if you’re ever purposely looking for such a film, the horror genre is a land that’s more than familiar with such a method of catching the eyes of the public.
One of the most recent beneficiaries of this sort of whisper campaign has been writer/director Issa Lopez’s Tigers Are Not Afraid. Garnering the approval of such luminaries as Stephen King, Neil Gaiman and even Guillermo del Toro himself, this feels like a movie that people really want to support. After seeing it for myself, I not only understand why people have been cheering this film on, I’m also one of the voices now added to that choir.
Set against the troubled streets of modern Mexico, Tigers Are Not Afraid starts with protagonist Estrella (Paola Lara) suffering two tragedies in one day: the disappearance of her mother, and a shooting that rocks her school. The latter of which sees the young girl receiving three pieces of chalk, signifying three wishes that are hers for the taking. Each of those wishes, and their consequences, unfold over a short span of time, leading Estrella and her new friends to an inescapable fate.
It’s no wonder that Tigers Are Not Afraid has gotten the praise from the creative minds that it’s attracted, as this story feels like something that would be at home on a shelf next to any of their classic works. Lopez’s storytelling, both in the dialogue she chooses and the way she translates it into the visual medium, are very much of the same sort of sensibilities that have mixed the horrific reality of life with magical realism in the past.
But while Tigers Are Not Afraid feels like the definition of a dark fairy tale, it’s unflinching in how it tells that very story. Estrella’s friends are all hardened by the streets, and in turn we see her both adapting and resisting to her new reality, shifting from the comforts of a home to the dangers of the streets. Through this journey, she sees a lot of disturbing and bloody crimes, but isn’t totally defenseless against them. Estrella may have had a comfortable life, but she’s not oblivious.
It’s in this transition that young Paola Lara really shines. Her portrayal of Estrella never fails to symbolize the brightness that her name suggests, even in the darkest and most dire of situations. But credit also needs to go towards Juan Ramón López, Hanssel Casillas and Rodrigo Cortes as members of her makeshift street family. Their individual character work enhances that of Ms. Lara’s, helping turn an impressive solo piece into an emotionally brilliant ensemble.
Even better, while Tigers Are Not Afraid is being sold as a horror film, that’s only part of the deal the audience is getting here. It’s a movie that uses the genre as an entry point, but not as a crutch, as its story has you feeling for the band of children that make up the film’s core gang. To be honest, I cried more than I jumped during the movie, simply because while the supernatural element makes for fantastic atmosphere, it’s the characters that truly had me invested in where everything was headed.
Mixing the tones of supernatural horror and emotional drama is something that’s quite common, but at the same time it’s not as easy to find examples of a story truly walking that line in an effective manner. Tigers Are Not Afraid is one of those movies that doesn’t just balance itself in-between those worlds, it gracefully tips its hat in both directions; with reverence and artistry.
Issa Lopez has made something that is severely applicable to the modern moment, and at the same time a tale that can be considered timeless. It’s what makes Tigers Are Not Afraid a welcome surprise, as I can already feel myself putting more of the pieces together and making enough observations that I need to go back and watch it again. Which is easy, considering this entire package runs in a relatively short running time, making it perfect for revisiting as a new favorite.
If Tigers Are Not Afraid was a book, it would be bound in leather, with gloriously gothic font displaying its name. It would invite all who walked past it to take the time to learn its secrets, and even without all of those physical trappings, the point still remains: you need to see the beautiful and heartbreaking story this movie tells.