Issa Lopez (“Todo Mal”) opens “Tigers Are Not Afraid” with statistics on the adult death toll of drug trade-related violence in her native Mexico, then follows these with an anti-statistic of sorts: The unknown number of child casualties. Calling attention to these unrecorded numbers and the unwritten stories of ruined lives behind them, then writing one herself, is the chief accomplishments of Lopez’s film. Released in 2017 in Mexico and stateside in 2019, “Tigers Are Not Afraid” imaginatively narrates and underlines the toll that the drug trade in Mexico takes on children.
In Lopez’s depiction, death literally follows children around. She transitions from the opening statistics to the middle school classroom of the film’s female protagonist Estrella (Paola Lara), who just barely survives an outbreak of gun violence on her campus, only to walk home and bypass a dead body on the sidewalk and arrive to an empty home. We later learn Estrella’s mother has been abducted by the Huascas, a gang that runs the local and seems to have all other local institutions at their beck and call. On her walk, though, something abnormal happens: A stream of blood coming from the corpse Estrella passed follows her around, and will for the rest of the film. I’m hesitant to call this moment in the film simply fantastical or magical or horrifying — instead, it’s a brilliant, appropriate merger of genres that represents the intersection of childhood freedom with adult terror.
In that way, “Tigers Are Not Afraid” reminds me of 2018’s “Capernaum” in its devastating saga and its close attention to and respect for its child protagonists. Unlike the latter, however, “Tigers” capitalizes on every opportunity to celebrate the unique gifts children have to care extraordinarily for one another, to express themselves, to cope with inexplicable evil and boundless loss. Scenes like an energetic soccer match between the children in an abandoned mansion where they hide from the Huasacas, or an umbrella dance under the water channeled through a gutter, stand out amid the darkness of the film that is overwhelming at times. Instead of walking away disconsolate, as many viewers surely did after watching the story of young Zain in “Capernaum,” Lopez includes scenes that let light in, recoloring the characters’ lives as well as viewers’ perceptions of them.
As much as “Tigers” is a feat of narrating childhood traumas, it is also a feat of visual storytelling. One of the most innovative manipulations of visuals in the film, and also the source of critics’ descriptions of the film as using “magical realism,” takes the form of the film’s animated graffiti art. Both Estrella and the male protagonist of the film, El Shine (Juan Ramón López), take to the alleys with cans of black spray paint and render their sorrows and fantasies on the walls. The English title of the film is drawn from the illustration Estrella makes of a tiger, invoked thereafter as a motif of courage and survival despite impossible conditions. Shine, leader of the band of orphaned children that take Estrella in after she loses her mother, rendered portraits of himself as well as the other boys in his pack of orphans. And like the portrait of Dorian Gray, the likenesses of the young children, as well as the various tiger illustrations, grow more menacing as they turn increasingly to violence in order to survive. I would argue Lopez does more with this plot device than Oscar Wilde originally did, using it to depict moral erosion as a result of young people’s social circumstances and not the other way around.
“Tigers Are Not Afraid” is horrifying and magical, mystical and deeply troubling. Lopez deftly cross-pollinates these genres and in their product, discovers a new way to tell the story of young children impacted by grownups’ crimes and self-concern.