Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Movie Review: Tigers Are Not Afraid

Tigers Are Not Afraid *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Issa López.
Written by: Issa López.
Starring: Paola Lara (Estrella), Juan Ramón López (El Shine), Nery Arredondo (Morro), Hanssel Casillas (Tucsi), Rodrigo Cortes (Pop), Ianis Guerrero (Caco), Tenoch Huerta (El Chino).
Issa Lopez’s debut film, Tigers Are Not Afraid, found a very vocal supporter in Guillermo del Toro – and it is certainly easy to see why, as Lopez is clearly inspired by Del Toro, in the way she blends fantasy and horror elements into a film of real world horror. Del Toro has done this brilliantly in some of his Mexican features – most notably The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth (his two best films) – and while Lopez isn’t quite able to do what Del Toro managed there, it is an excellent effort – especially for a first time filmmaker. When Tigers Are Not Afraid works, it is great. It doesn’t always work though.
The film is set in one of those Mexican towns that Donald Trump hates so much – ones run by the cartels, where the police are useless, and violence is a part of day-to-day life. The film opens, strangely enough, however on a scene of violence from that town more common in America – a school shooting. Returning home from that violent incident, young Estrella (Paola Lara) finds that her mother has disappeared, and she’s left on her own. She quickly finds some boys hiding out on the rooftops of the town – who tell her bluntly that her mother has likely either been killed or kidnapped to be trafficked – and they don’t really want her around either, because Caco (Ianis Guerrero), the violent man who runs the town, will likely take her too – even if she is young. Girls don’t last long on the streets. They reluctantly take her in however.
From there, Lopez tries to draw together all of her narrative strings. The leader of this ragtag groups of boys is Shine (Juan Ramon Lopez) – who recently stole a phone and a gun from Caco – who want both (but especially the phone) back, and now. The film also has fairy tale elements however – this is from the start of the film, and continues all the way through. Estrella is haunted by a shadowy presence – but not one that seems to want to hurt her. She also has three wishes she can use – a stream of blood accompanies those wishes when they happen.
Like in the films of Del Toro, the monsters in Tigers Are Not Afraid are real – they are flesh and blood humans, and represent a greater evil than make believe monsters ever could. Unlike Del Toro, Lopez has decided to take on current day human monsters – not a period piece – which should make the film all the more relevant. Yet, I’m not quite sure she is quite able to pull it all together. Caco remains one man – and although he clearly scares everyone in town – he doesn’t seem to be the type of all-consuming bad guy you assume. He also disappears for long stretches in the film – this is done to be able to develop the children’s characters, but doesn’t make all that much sense, given how much he says he wants the phone and what’s on it. It’s also a little convenient when they discover what is on the phone.
And yet, despite these flaws, Tigers Are Not Afraid works quite well. Lopez gets wonderful performances from her children actors – especially Lara as Estrella, who is quietly remarkable in a role where she puts on a strong face, to hide how broken she is inside. And Lopez’s direction is great – the big horror moments in the film are amazing, and the final shot is haunting, beautiful and poignant.
In the end, Tigers Are Not Afraid is a strong debut by Lopez. It isn’t the film that The Devil’s Backbone or Pan’s Labyrinth is – then again, neither of those were Del Toro’s first films either. It is a debut film of remarkable promise by Lopez – who may one day match what Del Toro has done.

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