MIFF review: Tigers are Not Afraid

Issa López channels fear and loving in this magical realist celebration of kids’ power and adults’ folly. Mesmerising.

Some of my fondest childhood memories are of being both terrified and entranced by Roald Dahl’s dark and delightful stories that never dumbed down the wild ride of life for his young readers. Indeed, The Witches so perturbed me that my younger brother took guerrilla action, plastering the book with yellow stickers so mum could no longer read it to a freaked out me.

It’s a treasured memory that came flooding back to me during writer/director Issa López’ darkest of fairy tales meets harsh reality Tigers Are Not Afraid (Vuelven), a soaring highlight of this year’s MIFF.

Set in a small Mexican village crumbling to dust in the midst of the country’s brutal drug wars, 11-year-old Estrella (a heart-rending Paola Lara) finds herself cast loose on mean streets when her mother disappears like so many souls before her, particularly women and children, as noted by the ominous opening intertitle.

While this vanishing is earthly in nature, just another victim of the cartels’ incessant turf fights and the political corruption that feeds them, López draws on the magical realist hymn book laced through with horror overtones familiar to fans of Guillermo del Torro. The kids’ eye view of her protagonists ties these travails into fables both local and universal.

A sort of Wendy, Estrella finds her fellow orphaned Lost Boys in a street gang led by Shine (an also spectacular Juan Ramón López). Reluctant to let a girl in on their gig, he’s a spiky and irascible force despite a tender and far-too-young fatherly impulse towards his wards, including traumatised and mute Morro (Ney Arredondo) ad adorable figure whose cuddly tiger teddy relates to the graffiti tigers that come alive as spirit animals attempt to protect this band.

But for all the fantasy, there’s little protection to be had here as the kids are pulled into the crossfire. Three wishes supposedly granted to Estrella via a piece of chalk handed to her during a shoot out at school by a scared witless teacher, go awry. Stalked by shuffling zombie lurking in the shadows and pursued by a trail of blood to the whispering refrain of her lost mother, even as he softens, Shine is plagued by the fear that she may be more hindrance than help.

Brutal violence and a barrage of searing regularly interjects. No normal kids’ movie in this sense, López nevertheless holds the essence of childhood tight, as they strive to thrive on the edge of madness. Hauntingly shot by Juan Jose Saravia and glitchily scored by Vince Pope, it’s an at once joyous and devastating ride that will leave you furious at the atrocities of adults who care not a jot for the future of their country, only for cocaine and cold hard cash, and celebrating the power of imagination as survival instinct.

Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords