31 Days of Hallowe’en 2022, Day 17: Tigers Are Not Afraid [2017]

The only thing I knew about this film was that a) I’d been dying to see this since I missed out on it at Fright Fest and b) It was going to break my heart. Which still feels heavy the day after seeing this.

Tigers Are Not Afraid (though the original title is Vuelven, meaning ‘They Come Back’), directed by Issa López, follows Estrella (Paola Lara), a young girl who lives in a deprived part of Mexico City. Her mother has been missing, and it’s fairly likely that it’s the doing of the local cartel that regularly kidnaps and kills adults and children. But Estrella still holds out hope that her mother will come back. However, after days of no food, she calls upon Él Shine (Juan Ramón López), a boy even younger than her but who has his own little street gang – with kids even younger than him – all of whom are homeless orphans from the cartel abductions. She asks to join their camp for food and protection, but Shine sets a dangerous task in order before he will allow it.

With a set-up this grim, tragic, horrific and genuinely real, who needs actual horror? But it’s there nonetheless; wispy dragons, eerie voices and ghosts weave their way into the narrative (albeit arguably on perhaps too much of a superficial level). Though, unlike the likes of Pan’s Labyrinth, the film’s mood isn’t softened by these elements of magical realism but instead shines a light on the gulf between what could whimsically be and the stark, brutal reality of the children’s lives – including an infuriating (yet utterly true-to-life) scene with a pair of cops. And the saddest thing is that the magical elements aren’t even that magical; even with the imaginative promise that childhood typically lends, this is the best that Estrella can dream up; it’s no towering benign folk spirit or grand buffet of inexplicable delicacies: it’s tiny extensions of the small joys of real-life, like a cute animated stuffed tiger or a magical bracelet that puts itself onto you like you’re a superhero.

Because it’s largely Estrella’s story, the weight of the film rests mostly on Lara’s shoulders, though López shares much of the burden. These pair of kids turn in such raw, emotive performances that it’s hard to believe that these little ones weren’t just generated in an acting factory machine somewhere. And it’s all the more emotionally wrenching for it.

The world they live in, too, is immersive in, by turns, its danger, wonder, filth, hope and community. There is very little joy or relief in this story but when it does come, there is beauty in its simplicity, reminding you, heartbreakingly, that these are just children. So, too, do the reminders come when things look bleak. Prepare to have your heart gutted out.

Score: 🎃🎃🎃🎃


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