Tigers Are Not Afraid (2019)

Tigers Are Not Afraid.jpgDirector: Issa López
Running Time: 83 Minutes
Starring: Paola Lara, Juan Ramón López, Hanssel Casillas, Rodrigo Cortes, Ianis Guerrero, Tenoch Huerta

In a Mexican city devastated by a drug war, thousands have gone missing or been murdered. Living in the midst of it is Estrella (Paola Lara), who has been left alone after her mothers sudden vanishing. Armed with three wishes, she joins a group of orphans, who look after one another, while surviving on the run from ghosts, and a bloodthirsty cartel.

Her third feature film as a director, Issa López blends together the fantastical with real life horrors, resulting in a fairytale which feels fresh and engrossing. Ghostly spectres and magical wishes may be a part of the story, but they're all built around human elements, and solid character work. At its heart, this is about children doing their best to survive on the streets, in a town under the grip of cartel violence, and not be the next victim on the receiving end of a bullet.

Crucially, the time is taken to remind that, no matter what horrors they've been through, these are still children we're following. We see important moments taken for them to look out for one another, and revel in joys wherever possible, which does good work in showcasing their bonds, while serving as necessary breaks in the tension. The real life terrors are never too far behind, and despite how young the characters are, this is a film not afraid to showcase the darker elements. When they eventually come, they're delivered in hard-hitting fashion, leaving viewers to realise just how much they ultimately care for this band of orphans.

The young cast are all deserving of praise, as they do great work selling their relationships with one another, and grappling with the tough material. Our defacto lead character is Estrella, as her desire to find out the fate of her mother is wonderfully portrayed by Paola Lara. Juan Ramón López impresses as Shine, the groups leader who understandably carries a lot of hurt, as evident as the burn on his face. He looks out for his friends, keeping them safe and not focusing on fear, while regularly memorialising them all through graffiti.

It all brings to mind the work of Guillermo Del Toro, especially Pan's Labyrinth, but what's crucial is not such an obvious comparison. Issa López ensures this feature carves its own identity, and stands apart in its own right. By the time the story reaches its beautiful conclusion, prepare to call yourself a tiger, for you won't be afraid to praise this masterwork.

Tigers Are Not Afraid is a solemn and unflinching fable, blending fantasy with real life horrors in a way that shall destroy you emotionally. It may only run for 83 minutes, but Issa López does more with such a small runtime than many big budget features attempt with longer.