Tigers Are Not Afraid: The kids aren't all right in this taut, supernatural/drug-war mash-up

By Jim Slotek

Rating: B-plus

It’s easy to see why both Stephen King and Guillermo del Toro are fans of Tigers Are Not Afraid, Issa López’s gripping supernatural horror set against the backdrop of Mexican drug cartel wars.

(Del Toro is conducting a Q&A with Lopez Friday, Aug. 23 at the evening screening at the TiFF Bell Lightbox).

The movie utilizes one of King’s favourite tropes – tween-age kids in jeopardy (one girl and a bunch of boys) – and, as per del Toro, indulges in as much magical realism as its budget will allow.

Estrella and her “lost boys” scrabble to survive while evading a drug cartel in Tigers Are Not Afraid

Estrella and her “lost boys” scrabble to survive while evading a drug cartel in Tigers Are Not Afraid

But the horror is grounded in hard reality. When we meet Estrella (Paola Lara) she is trying to lead a normal child’s life in a school prone to closing over outbreaks of gunfire. The local gang, the Huascas, have co-opted local politics, and are in a state of semi-permanent war with the town’s citizens, who are prone to “disappearing.”

But there is something special about Lara. Having completed a school assignment to write a fairy tale, and armed with what she believes are three wishes, she passes by the bloody aftermath of a cartel shooting, and a trickle of blood literally follows her. When her mother doesn’t return home, she is visited by apparitions that call her name, forcing her to flee.

Seemingly guided by the voices, she ends up in the company of a group of orphaned boys, led by the Shine (Juan Ramón López), who is something of a big brother figure for the group, whose most vulnerable member, the tiny Murro (Nery Arredondo) was so traumatized by an event in his past, he chooses not so speak.

But Shine is also driven by thoughts of revenge for the death of his mother at the hands of Caco (Ianis Guerrero), one of the generals of the cartel under the kingpin El Chino (Tenoch Huerta). Even as Estrella is haunted by apparitions, Shine is haunted by the threatening phone-calls he receives on the iPhone he stole from Caco (there is a telling scene when Shine takes the phone and offers it to local police in their car, who speed away when they hear to whom the phone belonged).

An apparent kingpin-killing is blamed on the orphans, and particularly on Estrella, making these children assassination targets of the town’s most ruthless killers. Director Lopez isn’t one to allow us to make any assumptions about who survives. There are tragic events on route to the collision between the criminal and the supernatural.

The child actors are all exceptional, particularly the two leads, Lopez’s Shine struggling with the reality that he might not have what it takes to be a revenge killer, and Lara’s Estrella growing stronger and more empowered as the spirits move her.

The result is an emotionally moving thriller that smoothly negotiates the horrors of the supernatural and real world evil with haunting imagery and tension. And the cinematography creates a landscape that is almost post-apocalyptic in its crumbling disarray.

Tigers Are Not Afraid. Written and directed by Issa Lopez. Starring Paola Lara, Juan Ramon Lopez and Ianis Guerrero. Opens Friday, August 23 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.