Issa López’s Tigers are not afraid is winning prizes on festivals all over the world, Guillermo del Toro liked it, Stephen King liked it and I am a fan too. How to describe the genre? A dark fairy tale, magical realism, fantasy, or maybe – a plot keyword Imdb gave it – Mexican horror? I guess magical realism comes closest. The film is told through a child’s perspective where magic and reality are still interwoven, set in a dark world of violence, drug cartels and kidnappings. The protagonist is Estrella, a ten year old girl on her own after her mother has disappeared. She groups up with four other children and she is armed with three wishes.
Why did I like this movie so much?
1 The Kids
The kids in Tigers are not Afraid are on their own. We see their orphaned, homeless world and adults are not part of their group. The don’t have anyone to turn to, no family, no teachers, no social system, they only have each other. Most of the adults we see are out to get them: members of the drug cartel wanting their phone with incriminating evidence back from the kids.
Not only do they all act good, the story itself shows the kids in a real, believable way. Not infantile, not adult, not flat, real. When Estrella is told she needs to kill somebody before she is allowed to enter the group, she asks if they all have killed (of course not: the youngest is around four y.o.). The tone of it is between serious and play – with a different subject this could have been a playground conversation – and the sphere between the kids during the entire movie is also exactly right. They are kids, they play, they tell stories, but their actions and situation are very serious. Too serious.
Maybe because the child protagonists took me (back) to a state where magic is possible, but I felt tensed more than once.
Another reason for the scariness might be because the magic in Tigers is unpredictable. Estrella’s wishes come true, but they are always accompanied by a dark and unexpected side. I started to hope she wouldn’t use them. A more explicit example: her first wish is that her mother comes back. Her mother comes back and she helps, but she is still dead, decomposing, it is not the same, it is scary. For me this was in a personal way sort of recognizable. In the first year after my mother passed, she kept appearing in my dreams but always without eyes. Sometimes she only showed up somewhere in the background of my dream, but she was always also clearly dead. Sometimes not even dreams can comfort in the way you hope. Or wishes, like Estrella’s.
Magic in various shapes and forms follows Estrella but it is an unknown magic. We don’t know if it can be trusted.
3 The Magical Elements
Most criticism has been about the magical elements in the movie, both technical and if it should be there at all. I loved these elements. In the beginning you might see it as a child’s way of seeing the world, but at a point you have to take it seriously and step in that world. Maybe not everyone wants to (and then definitely lose the engagement).
The magical elements gave hope without giving the violent topic and situation of the kids any less gravity. With magic in the world, the kids have a chance to win, something on their side and at the same time it gives them an autonomy, a power of their own.
Because tigers are not afraid.