Tigers Are Not Afraid is a delirious fairy tale that turns a war-torn backdrop into a supernatural tale of perseverance and imagination
“Tigers are not afraid. They went through all of the bad stuff and come out on the other side okay.”
We tell fairy tales for various reasons. We tell them to teach lessons, to entertain, to preserve culture, but we also sometimes tell them to escape a brutal, frightening reality. Sometimes fairy tales can be the only escape from such a harsh reality. Fairy tales are usually set against bleak worlds in order to accentuate their fantasy elements, but Tigers Are Not Afraid isn’t afraid to take the genre to some new, challenging places. In this case, that’s a war-torn, drug-saturated Mexico.
Director Issa Lopez sets her film amidst Mexico’s crippling drug wars and cuts right to the topic’s brutal core. Tigers Are Not Afraid operates like this urban fairy tale where children are forced to be monster hunters and their grim reality gets a fantastical coat of paint slapped on it. Furthermore, the story has an ambitious design where it wields multiple narratives; those that are the children’s fantasies and then the dangerous, bleak real world. Whether it’s in reality or fantasy, children in both are eager to be tigers—to be fearless and strong—but it’s a struggle. The film constantly juxtaposes these two worlds against each other. It’s also no coincidence that there is tiger imagery everywhere. Whether it’s a stuffed animal or a mask, there’s always a reminder of this symbol of invincibility. Tigers are the children’s superheroes and they inhabit all of their stories.
At the film’s center is Estrella, a young girl whose mother has recently gone missing, likely due to one of the myriad of problems in he country (one of the scariest things about the film is how the sudden disappearance of family members is business as usual here). Estrella befriends a group of orphaned boys and they all collectively work to survive and feed each other stories to avoid their realities, but all of this make believe goes one step further in Estrella’s case. It looks like Estrella’s estranged mother is haunting her or perhaps even returned as something else. The young girl begins to see trails of blood, images of ghosts, and the general feeling that the other side is reaching out to her. The film has fun with its ambiguity towards this material in regard to if its actually happening or confined to Estrella’s imagination. The film sets a precedent for allowing the children’s imagination to run away with them and let the film’s aesthetic go off the rails in the same way (the scene in which the graffiti comes to life and tells a story is a good example), but at the same time it does feel like something more is going on in Estrella’s case.
Issa Lopez originally comes from gentle Mexican rom-coms, which is why it’s so surprising to see her helm something that feels like if Guillermo del Toro directed Attack the Block, which is far from a bad thing. Not only does this have plenty of bite and provide a scathing social commentary, it also handles its creepier material with plenty of confidence. There’s a set piece that involves a renegade trickle of blood that makes its way through an entire home that’s such a creative, chilling visual.
Tigers Are Not Afraid isn’t exactly a horror film, but there are some genuinely frightening creatures and nightmare sequences within the film. Regardless of how much it skews towards horror, it’s still absolutely required viewing. There’s a reason that both Stephen King and Guillermo del Toro both called this their favorite genre film of 2017. It also doesn’t hurt that all of the children here are such incredible actors that sell the heavier moments, but also don’t fail to be adorable. It’s thrilling to watch them all stand up against their threats, grow up, and seize control in a beautiful, expressive way. Lopez knows that it’s a good idea to keep the supernatural content ambiguous and that it’s more effective when it’s understated. Even if none of the horror or more fantastical elements worked here, the fact that the film has a heavy emotional core and human story to fall back on is why Tigers Are Not Afraid is such an important, memorable piece of genre filmmaking.