Tigers Are Not Afraid
We are in some northern border. Any of them. All of them. Estrella is 10 years old and has 3 wishes: The first one, that her missing mother comes back and it happens. Her mother returns but she is dead and follows Estrella everywhere. Petrified, Estrella tries to scape from her by joining a gang orphaned by violence. Soon she realizes that dead are never left behind and when you are in the middle of brutality and violence, wishes never come true the way you want them to be.
Juan Ramon Lopez
The film enjoyed its West Coast Premiere at the 17th Annual Screamfest in Hollywood.
Tigers Are Not Afraid is about a group of children in an unnamed Mexican city – who have lost their parents to the violent activities of gangs and drug-lords. A loyal gang of pre-teens, headed by Shine (Juan Ramon Lopez) work together to survive in their parent-less world and to keep the gangs at bay. Add into the mix Estrella (Paola Lara), who also recently lost her mother and has been granted three wishes by her teacher (classes have been discontinued due to the rampant violence). Her first wish is to have her mother back. With that wish seemingly granted (via something akin to The Monkey’s Paw), she takes up with Shine and his fellow gang members – and they work together to seek vengeance against these evil men who have destroyed their families.
I would call this some sort of companion piece to the recent re-telling of Stephen King’s IT. It’s about a group of children who can only depend on themselves in desperate times. There’s something supernatural which is pushing them in certain directions. But while IT is more of a straight-up “monster movie”, Tigers Are Not Afraid is a much more resonant, perhaps subtle version of a “monster movie”. The monsters in this film are living, breathing human beings – and they’re merciless. But both films are first and foremost – about friendship and loyalty. The difference is in the “reality” of the monsters these close friends must battle.
From what I gather, many of these young actors were relatively untrained. There’s so much heart, hurt and authenticity in all they bring to the screen, it’s tough to pick one who was better. So let’s just say I was most impressed with Juan Ramon Lopez as the gang’s leader – Shine. The character’s a tough cookie. He’s no-nonsense, unafraid (hence the title) and so when he starts to soften once Estrella joins the group – it’s a gentle and beautiful shift. These are only children, so there’s never any sort of physical connection made – but Shine and Estrella are soul-mates. It goes beyond love and caring. These two were destined to be friends. And this magical connection further serves the fantastical atmosphere of the film. It’s romantic. And at that core is Shine’s journey toward being able to open up and accept love again. Lopez gives a knock-out, amazing performance.
But frankly, every one of these kids is simply fantastic.
Is there a special secret to reaching the heights of emotion in a horror film? And I’m not talking about suspense, terror or scares. Those are relatively easy to pull off. Most filmmakers know which buttons to push to garner such reactions.
But it’s certainly a rarity when a horror film (again, that label is somewhat iffy on this piece) digs deeper and makes a very human, very touching and ultimately heart-breaking connection with its audience.
It’s fitting that my viewing of Tigers Are Not Afraid marks my fourth season covering Screamfest – because my first year (back in 2014) introduced me to another stunning horror-drama, full of heart and heart-break – the Venezualan film The House at the End of Time (see my 5-star review here). And Tigers, while far less twisty-n-turny, also has a focus on children, their relationships and how they handle real-life pain and the dangers of the supernatural.
I also think its fitting that my 5-star rating of The House at the End of Time (currently being remade by New Line Cinema) will be mirrored here.
I can’t find much – if anything – to complain about when examining Tigers Are Not Afraid. And while I don’t easily hand out perfect scores (this will be perfect score #11 out of over 300 reviews over the past three years) – but when something this powerful falls into your lap, you have to give credit where credit is due.
Armed with the knowledge that these atrocities against children are very real – and the fact that most (if not all) of the locations used in the film were barely dressed – they were shot as they were found – you’ll waste little time making note of the film’s technical aspects. You’ll simply fall into this world and fall in love with these characters.
But in this urban decay and in the midst of these true-to-life dangers – Tigers Are Not Afraid discovers magic. It examines hope, friendship and loss – all while throwing terrifying images at the audience in a fairy-tale world.
Take this as you will. If you’re one of my avid readers of 3, you’ll know that I often point out how much of a softee I am when watching films. If something gets to me – I have no shame to “ugly cry” during a film. Let’s just say that the “ugly crying” during Tigers Are Not Afraid – was borderline embarrassing. But I make no apologies.
I actually reacted to a moment in the film, where I said out loud, “Oh my God.” And with the introduction of Morrito’s little stuffed toy and the toy’s importance as a symbol – as well as the toy’s transformation – you’ll potentially repeat that “Oh my God” as that little stuffed tiger comes to life. It reminded me of the bear in Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence. And yes, the stuffed toy in that film also made me “ugly cry”.
There are several other things introduced early on in the film, which will come back into play later. And with those reemerging puzzle pieces – more crying.
Let’s face it. The film is an almost non-stop cry-fest. But is it scary? There are some disturbing and creepy images, but the film is not about “boo” moments (although there are a couple of those too). It’s about subtlety.
Talking with folks after the screening, there were comments of “It was manipulative”. I wholeheartedly disagree. There were things which could have been taken that way, but within the world the film had created – it all made sense, never felt overdone and was always justified.
There are several scenes which are simply magical. As a story is being told about the tiger which roams the deserted and broken-down streets at night, searching for prey – Shine’s spray-paint designs come to life. It’s unexpected.
And I think that that statement, “It’s unexpected” is what is at the core of any description of the film.
It’s depressing what these children are made to suffer, and the world they live in. But they find joy, loyalty and love with their fellow orphans. There’s a scene where they dance together. There’s a scene where they hold auditions for a talent show. There’s a scene where they tell scary stories to one another.
And these all serve to remind us that these are still just little kids. Despite these terrible situations, they can’t stop being kids. And this makes you love them all the more.
The film is beautifully shot with several inspired set-pieces. The burning of a grand piano in the center of one scene is a stand-out. The images of koi-fish broken out of their aquarium, and who now reside in a gutted out cement floor. And the many cutaways of all things child-related (a roller skate, several stuffed toys) – help to set the scene and to further draw the audience in.
Tigers Are Not Afraid could potentially flirt with the label of “masterpiece” (in the way the depressing horror of something like Guillermo Del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone might).
And to quote Forrest Gump, “that’s all I have to say about that.”
So to Tigers Are Not Afraid, and the rich but rough world of magic, heartbreak and friendship you have created – welcome to the 5-star club.
The film is still playing on the festival circuit, and no wider release information is yet available.