In 2006, Guillermo del Toro gave us Pan’s Labyrinth, which is the greatest horror-fantasy film ever made partly because it has virtually no competition in the genre. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I was waiting for a million copycats to the follow-up del Toro’s profitable masterpiece, but few if any ever came.
More than a decade later, there is some dark light in that tunnel, and once again it comes out of Mexico. Tigers Are Not Afraid has that same mixture of real-world atrocity and magical wonder, and Houstonians have a rare chance to see it thanks to Alamo Drafthouse.
The film follows a young girl named Estrella (Paola Lara), who is orphaned thanks to a violent gang war. As her class lies on their floor of their schoolroom while guns go off above their heads, her teacher gives her three pieces of chalk that she calls wishes. Afterwards, Estrella meets a group of lost boys led by Shine (Juan Ramón López), who have all also lost their parents thanks to a bloody gang boss and aspiring politician. The group evades him as he searches for a phone with evidence of his murderous reign. Meanwhile, Estrella uses her wishes to conjure the vengeful dead.
It’s a very down and dirty film, much more Candyman than Pan’s Labyrinth. That’s not to say there is no magic. One of the lost boys has a stuffed tiger that begins appearing to Estrella as a kind of clockwork guide, and the incriminating phone occasionally spews dragons out into the world. All the while, Estrella’s mother haunts her just out of sight. There is a shadow world that the children inhabit, made up partially of their own broken fairy tales that run wild in a world that has officially forgotten them. They live in abandoned hotels, playing soccer and calling a puddle full of fish from a shattered aquarium their zoo.
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Much like The Florida Project portrayed childhood innocence among squalor and terrible circumstances, Tigers Are Not Afraid shows how kids remain kids even when the horrors of adults forces them into warriorship. Shine and Estrella manage to turn their dark existences into an epic full of heroes, even when their castles are just ravaged squalor.
But is it scary? Yes, it is. Director Issa López has a marvelous eye for lurking shadows. It’s never clear until the very end if Estrella’s mother is after her or her killers, and the journey there is slowly populated with more and more victims of the fighting. The scares come sparingly, but hit hard when they do. As in Pan’s Labyrinth, the true monsters are the callously cruel monsters in power.
This makes it a bleak film for the most part. There is little hope, but there is strength. The title comes from a statement by Shine, who says that tigers are not afraid because the bad stuff has already happened. In that despairing thought, Estrella becomes an avenging angel who refuses to stand by when things turn monstrous. In that message, it’s exactly the kind of message the world needs to see right now. Beautiful, terrifying, and unforgettable, Tiger are Not Afraid should not be missed.
Tigers Are Not Afraid is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Wednesday September 4 at Alamo Drafthouse La Centerra, 2707 Commercial Center. $7.