Issa López’s ghost story Tigers are Not Afraid owes a large debt to Guillermo del Toro. The film is strikingly similar in structure and style to del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone, with a few bits of Pan’s Labyrinth thrown in for good measure. López’s film contains a ragtag group of kids, ghosts bent on revenge, and fairy tale elements that all would seem to be inspired by the director’s films.
What sets López’s movie apart from the films it pays homage to is its immediacy. Tigers are Not Afraid is just as eerie as The Devil’s Backbone, but it feels twice as timely. While del Toro’s film is set during the Spanish Civil War, Tigers are Not Afraid takes place in the uncertain, violent present of the Mexican drug wars. It’s the difference between shaking your head at humanity’s past acts of cruelty, and having your heart ripped out by the knowledge of what’s still going on.
Tigers are Not Afraid tells the story of Estrella (Paola Lara), a young girl who returns home from school one day to find her mother missing, presumably killed by a gang. Followed by her mother’s ghost, Estrella falls in with a gang of orphans led by Shine (Juan Ramón López), a boy whose tough exterior hides a complex knot of pain, fear and distrust. The group tries to find a safe place to live in hiding from the Huascas, a local gang hunting down the kids in search of a stolen iPhone. All the while, Estrella hears the growing voices of the dead, who call on her to help them enact revenge on the gangsters.
Like The Devil’s Backbone, Tigers are Not Afraid is anchored by incredibly mature performances from its young cast, with Juan Ramón López as a particular standout. As Shine, he expresses the frankness of a kid who’s had to grow up too fast, combined with vulnerability that shows how much growing up he still has to do. The way the kids discuss the horrors they’ve experienced is both stunning in its frankness and heartrendingly effective in communicating their loss of innocence. The rare moments in the film where they truly get to act like children only serve to highlight the gap between the lives they had, and the way they’re forced to exist now.
For most of its runtime, it’s easy to forget that Tigers are Not Afraid is a supernatural movie. Until the final act, its ghosts are mainly relegated to the background. This makes the film slightly less effective as horror, though it certainly doesn’t diminish its overall impact. “Haunting” is the only way to describe how it feels once the spirits of the dead show up en masse during the film’s climax, in a scene that’s both grotesque and profoundly sad.
Tigers are Not Afraid isn’t quite a masterpiece, but it does an admirable job as an international breakthrough for director Issa López. The film’s ultimately hopeful message about loss and recovery is made all the more powerful with the knowledge that there are untold numbers of children right now whose experiences aren’t far off from Estrella, Shine and their friends. Tigers are Not Afraid is both a ghost story and a modern fairy tale about kids who aspire to be like kings and princesses through the brave act of simply surviving.