“We forget who we are when the things from outside come to get us,” a young child named Estrella (Paola Lara) announces in the opening voiceover of Issa López’s magical realist fable Tigers Are Not Afraid. The little girl hurried into adulthood by her mother’s death in Mexico’s drug war goes on to explain that the horrors of the everyday keep downtrodden kids such as herself from realizing their potential not as victims but as princes, the warriors of myths and fairytale lore.
That’s a lovely if overwritten start to a genre-mixing parable about the innate power of storytelling to keep the scary things at the door from getting in, and to help us survive our trauma. López’s film showcases her keen eye for detail and firm command of her cast of young, nonprofessional actors. It is sure to open doors into a more mainstream horror career for its creator given its endorsement by genre heavyweights like Stephen King and Guillermo del Toro. Yet, it never quite delivers on the promise of that opening statement, relying too heavily on generalizations about childhood innocence amidst catastrophe and striking an unconvincing balance between its fantastical elements and its hyper-real style.
Armed only with her imagination and three pieces of chalk in the opening moments of the film, Estrella joins the legion of orphaned children living on the streets of an unidentified border town wracked with cartel violence. There she finds a thriving Dickensian underclass of prepubescent boys who have been prematurely hardened by violence.
They’re led by the poetically named El Shine (Juan Ramón López), a graffiti artist and thief who gets the troupe into trouble once he steals the gun and telltale iPhone of Caco (Ianis Guerrero). The Los Huascas gang member is seemingly connected to the disappearance of Estrella’s mother. As if being a fugitive isn’t stressful enough, Estrella has to contend with the fact that her wish to see her mother again has been granted in the most uncanny way, as she is dogged throughout her travels by a ghostly maternal doppelgänger who begs her to bring Caco to her for justice.
López’s work is cut from the same cloth as fabulist storytellers like Del Toro, whose films Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone are clear inspirations in their blending of horrifying images and humanist drama, as well as their sympathy toward the monsters who haunt their characters. She has a striking visual style to match her lyricism as a writer, finding beauty in the soiled textures and crumbling walls of the ruined spaces the kids squat in while on the run from Caco. At one point the movie pauses to take in a curious site within an abandoned building — a staid puddle livened up by a colourful assortment of goldfish, whose unsteady movements inject a little bit of life into a space haunted by death.
In addition to highlighting these flecks of vivacity amidst the children’s dilapidated surroundings, López and cinematographer Juan Jose Saravia are adept at incorporating Estrella’s hallucinations into an otherwise realistic milieu, thanks in no small part to the naturalistic performances from López and Lara. Recurring motifs like a minimalist trail of blood snaking its way through Estrella’s environment, or a stuffed tiger coming to life and casually blending into the low-lit settings that surround it walk the line of tastelessness without tipping over — no small feat for a potentially exploitative story about the psychological traumas experienced by children in war zones.
Yet López’s choice to flirt with the fantastical without fully embracing it, and her habit of anchoring her supernatural flourishes in overly literal explanations, dulls the film’s horror, making it feel a lot like kid’s stuff. Her desire to resolve Estrella’s impossible situation, albeit in an open-ended way, also feels too tidy. It’s one thing to let Estrella show off that she’s mastered her fear and look at her story as empowering rather than victimizing. But in rushing to celebrate one girl’s plucky resolve, Tigers Are Not Afraid ultimately merely generalizes a fairytale about the complicated sociopolitical crisis it wants to tell a serious story about — peppering context in for traces of authenticity rather than lingering in the darkness of what Estrella calls this kingdom of broken things.
Tigers Are Not Afraid opens in Toronto Aug. 23.