The kids are not all right. In the Issa López dark fairy tale Tigers Are Not Afraid, the displaced, homeless children of Mexico band together to create a magical reality as a substitute for the grim facts of their lives. Estrella (astounding child actor Paola Lara) is stuck under her desk during a shooting at her school. When she returns home, her mother has been taken. Her reality falls out as quickly as it is established, the innocence of the world through a child’s eyes, turned inside out. She bands together with a group of homeless boys, their troop containing perhaps the year’s finest child acting around. This surreal social fable proves a woman’s place as a director in Mexico, where they often get stuck working romantic soaps. As producer Guillermo Del Toro has said about the project, we have often only received half the story of horror.
Tigers Are Not Afraid brings a new empathetic lens to children’s horror. As Estrella’s world shatters around her, some strange voodoo arises, granting her three wishes that she can spell out with sticks of chalk. She is not immediately taken as a kindred spirit amongst the boys, and must first eliminate one of their enemies, a man who would threaten their livelihood. Her first wish is not to have to kill the man, and unbeknownst to the young men, he passes away upon her wish. As she continues to use this new magic, the group faces dire, ever-increasing consequences. The world becomes grotesque, enlivened by troubling spirits that arise in the night, tigers that stalk the children’s ramshackle shelter, blood that carves its path along the walls; they are surrounded by death.
The opening paints the grim sociological picture we’re dealing with. Entire cities have turned to ghost towns – with 160,000 having been killed and 53,000 missing – there are no reported numbers for the children. We are left to assume there has been a devastating loss, catastrophic numbers large enough that they could not be reported. With this opening, Tigers Are Not Afraid sets a bold intention, to create the ghost world of the missing children. It makes the hard news into a literal haunting of its characters. These scrappy young kids must deal with the painful, grim realities they were born into. Most will not survive. The young girls will be taken for painful reasons too ugly to print. The horror of the film is greater than its filmic elements; it’s true to life horror of innumerable children suffering.
There could not be anything more important. Somewhere between the guise of Del Toro’s usual evocation of the fairy tale world and the disorienting magic realism by way of the horror of Under the Shadow (2016), López finds a balance that feels right. It blends tragedy into dark stories that mean something. Her first work in the genre is a superlative entry, written in-between the many romance comedy scripts she was type-cast into directing. She has succeeded tremendously, earning the faith of her mentor, her next project is another Del Toro produced joint about Werewolves in a Western setting. López is a talent of the moment. With the film picked up by Shudder, it also stands as a major victory for the label. Tigers Are Not Afraid is an important horror work that creates a brilliant opportunity for a new story to emerge, offering a lens into a multicultural future for our beloved genre, where women create bold stories of empathy to match their male counterparts.