Movie Review ~ Tigers Are Not Afraid (Vuelven)

The Facts

Synopsis: A dark fairy tale about a gang of five children trying to survive the horrific violence of the cartels and the ghosts created every day by the drug war.

Stars: Juan Ramón López, Paola Lara, Ianis Guerrero, Tenoch Huerta

Director: Issa López

Rated: Not Rated

Running Length: 83 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: While Hollywood studios and low-budget independent financiers in the United States were busy perfecting the slice and dice slasher film and then running it into the ground over the last few decades, the filmmakers south of the border have been interested in more than just bloody shocks. I’ve seen enough Spanish and Mexican horror by this point to know that you aren’t coming to see these carefully contrived films for high body counts, excessive nudity, or any of the other trappings that has given the horror genre such a bad (and boring!) name. Instead, you are more apt to find terrors that spring from ordinary circumstances following average folk as they discover what’s scaring them might be something of their own creation.

Even without the supernatural elements that gradually infiltrate Tigers Are Not Afraid, there is enough real-life horror to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. The devastating effects of the drug wars in Mexico City have been well-documented in investigative pieces and fictionalized films like Sicario and Sicaro: Day of the Soldado. Gruesome murders between dueling cartels are used to send messages between rivals, often leaving bodies in broad daylight or having people simply vanish without a trace.  Rising gun violence and the increase in competition have driven crime to staggering levels.

Two very different children feature prominently in the action as sort of a modern day Peter Pan and Wendy.  El Shine (Juan Ramón López) is the leader of a rag-tag group of lost boys living on the streets and steering clear of Caco, the crime boss in their district. On a very different path is Estrella (Paola Lara), a school-girl living with her single mother. As the film opens, Estrella is learning about fairy tales in her classroom when an act of violence spins her world upside down and sends her down a rabbit hole of dark visions and deadly consequences. When her mother disappears, she finds her way into El Shine’s gang as she searches for her lost parent, bringing her ever closer to an evil that seems to be tracking her.

Writer/director Issa López makes the most out of a small budget and manages to get some great performances out of her young actors in the process. The kids are asked to go through quite the emotional wringer and there’s an intellectual maturity in these children that’s hard to teach. If, in the end, the skeleton of the story isn’t that complicated and doesn’t quite match the more complex narratives orchestrated in films like The Orphanage, Julia’s Eyes, or Tesis, there’s enough intriguing ideas present to make it an above average offering. It’s also rather unpredictable, taking several turns I didn’t think it had the guts to go through with.  You’re advised to stick with it during a slightly saggy middle section, paying attention to some carefully dropped clues by López as to what’s developing.

More spooky than scary, but fairly sad when you contemplate the grim reality facing children living in similar conditions, I wasn’t anticipating Tigers Are Not Afraid to be such a somber horror entry . With its visages of tarp-wrapped bodies beckoning to young children and a blood trail that literally follows our heroine home from school, the film isn’t short on unsettling sights. López has a good eye for how to get maximum value out of a tense moment and a keen sense of timing to not linger long in the blackness. Still, I think audiences will come away from the movie more stirred than shaken.

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