It’s said that horror is the most malleable of genres because it works at levels beyond logic, in a realm of pure emotion. At best, such stories serve as exorcisms, expressing fears and feelings we’re uncomfortable with addressing directly. The supernatural can also be a salve, making palatable that which would otherwise be unbearable to watch. Such is the case with “Tigers Are Not Afraid,” a bullet-strewn fairy tale from writer-director Issa López about Mexican orphans of cartel violence. It’s a heightened, harrowing children’s adventure spiked with moments of pure terror, great sadness and pointed politics if you’re listening for them. This is a hell of a movie.
We begin in a small community school where 10-year-old Estrella (Paulo Lara) is given three wishes — but really those wishes are just broken pieces of chalk passed along by a teacher trying to comfort her while their classroom is strafed with stray machine-gun fire from the ongoing drug war. Soon, classes are canceled and the streets are empty. Everyone’s either been killed, fled or fallen victim to a vicious gang of human traffickers who drunkenly prowl the city at night, working for a crooked, cartel-aligned politico whose campaign posters glower from the sides of buildings.
But Estrella’s still at home alone, waiting for her mom who disappeared days ago. Of course, she’s tried wishing for her to return, but those little chalk stubs seem to have Monkey’s Paw properties — you’ll get what you asked for, just not at all the way you wanted it. López immediately establishes the porous boundaries between dark fantasy and even crueler realities, as graffiti murals of jungle cats come to life and a sinewy, tendril-like bloodstain follows Estrella around wherever she walks.
Eventually, she heads to the rooftops and finds a crew of young street urchins surviving on convenience store junk food and petty thievery like a pack of Peter Pan’s Lost Boys. Naturally, at first these little dudes want nothing to do with a girl, but Estrella wins her way into their good graces after a stroke of luck (or was it something supernatural?) lends her an outsized reputation, threatening the macho bona fides of pint-sized gang leader El Shine. Played by Juan Ramón López in an enormously affecting performance, this tough-talking little tyke has stolen a pistol and a cell phone from the traffickers’ cruelest lackey, and your heart will break when you find out why he isn’t about to give the latter back to anybody.
“Tigers Are Not Afraid” eventually becomes a chase movie through this haunted ghost town, with real-life monsters pursuing the kids as mystical forces occasionally intervene to mysterious ends. The regal title animals loom all around as paintings and totems, symbols of bravery the kids cling to for support like the tattered stuffed animal clutched by young Morrito (Nery Arredondo), the baby of the group who was struck mute after witnessing things no child should ever see.
Issa López — a prolific writer in the Mexican film and television industry here directing her third feature — has said she came up with the idea for the film in response to shows like Netflix’s “Narcos” that glamorize drug kingpins as larger-than-life villains. What she’s interested in here is the aftermath — a less sexy depiction of the gutted towns and abandoned children left in their wake. Scary as they may sometimes be, the film’s supernatural elements provide a necessary release valve for a story that could quite easily be oppressive. The ghosts of the cartel’s casualties give us a sense of order amid all this chaos, allowing for a possibility that the dead might someday avenge themselves upon the living.
This a film of big, bold images that unfortunately doesn’t always have the budget to keep up with its visual conceits. López and cinematographer Juan Jose Saravia try hiding some of the shoddier special effects in shadow, making scenes look muddier and harder to follow than they should be. A lot of these visuals are such great ideas you’ll forgive the chintzy CGI execution — as when a dead woman’s charm bracelet disintegrates and rearranges itself around her daughter’s wrist, or the puddles full of tropical fish swimming around the floor of an abandoned mansion these kids have refashioned into a playground made of ruins.
The ending packs an elemental punch, with the film’s title becoming something of an incantation during the literal passing of a torch between spirits. (Okay, it’s a cigarette lighter. But, you know.) “Tigers Are Not Afraid” makes some huge, gutsy choices that worked me over pretty good — there were a couple times I shouted at the screen in anger. Yet the movie doesn’t feel exploitive, rather quite the opposite.
For obvious reasons, López’s film has been compared to Guillermo del Toro’s historical children-in-wartime fantasias “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Pan’s Labyrinth.” (It’s no surprise that del Toro has signed on to produce her next picture.) Though considerably less elegant, “Tigers Are Not Afraid” feels more immediate and keyed into current crises, less filtered through nostalgia and movie-love. When López finally gets a budget to match her ambition, watch out.