After wowing festival audience for the better part of the last couple of years – gaining notable fans and supporters in Stephen King and Guillermo del Toro along the way – one of the best foreign language films and thrillers of this or any other year finally sees release to a wider audience: writer-director Issa López haunting, violent, and resoundingly timely modern fairy tale Tigers Are Not Afraid.
Set against the backdrop of the current cartel wars that are plaguing Mexican border towns, Tigers Are Not Afraid tells the story of ten year old Estrella (Paola Lara), whose school is closed after getting caught in the crossfire of a gunfight, only to return home to discover that her mother has gone missing, presumably as a result of gang activity. She joins up with a band of homeless, thieving lost boys who find themselves similarly parentless and helpless. Armed with three wishes given to her by her teacher (all of which come with potentially grave consequences), Estrella wants to find out what happened to her mother, and to protect her new friends from a ruthless kingpin (Tenoch Huerta) who wants to retrieve a phone they stole that has some incriminating evidence on it.
The rare thriller that could make audiences reach for some Kleenex instead of using their hands to cover their eyes in terror, Tigers Are Not Afraid plays like a collaboration between del Toro and Taylor Sheridan, only possibly even better than that sounds. The supernatural scares and mystical elements (which include a blood trail that follows Estrella around, a helpful, anthropomorphised stuffed animal, and a gruesome, frequently reappearing corpse) aren’t nearly as harrowing as the sudden, shocking bursts of realistic violence. The balance between the genre elements and gritty drama nets López her best film to date. She’s created a wholly unique and deeply moving film that takes its cues from real life fears.
Equally praiseworthy are Lara’s strong willed, but deeply frightened lead and Juan Ramón López as the grizzled leader of the young gang, someone who knows all too well what the cartels are capable of. They’re both newcomers, but they’re delivering seasoned performances that most veterans would have trouble approximating.
It’s no surprise this has been racking up a considerable amount of awards in Mexico, or that anyone who sees it sings its praises readily. Don’t sleep on this. It has been slept on for too long.
Tigers Are Not Afraid opens at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto on Friday, August 23, 2019 and at Vancity Theatre in Vancouver on August 30. Following the 7:45 pm screening at TIFF Bell Lightbox on Friday, August 23, filmmaker Issa López will take part in a Q&A hosted by Guillermo del Toro.
Check out the trailer for Tigers Are Not Afraid:
Portions of this review originally appeared as part of our coverage of the 2018 Toronto After Dark Film Festival.
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