A tough, beautiful urban fairy tale by Mexican writer-director Issa López, Tigers Are Not Afraid is a perfect example of how genre films can help us engage with real-world crises without being overwhelmed or discouraged by them. It’s set in an unnamed Mexican metropolis from which thousands of men, women, and children have disappeared since the start of the drug war in 2006, with young Estrella (Paola Lara) coming home from school one day to find that her mother is now among them. Reassuring herself with a running fantasy about the courage of tigers and the belief that people have inherent value that gets lost when they’re afraid (“We forget who we are when the things from outside come to get us”), Estrella joins forces with a quartet of younger street boys, led by El Shine (Juan Ramon López), who have stolen an iPhone and a gun from a drug dealer who wants them back at all costs. What separates this from other stories about people running afoul of drug lords isn’t just that it’s about children, but that López presents them as children, brimming with imagination and playfulness even while negotiating for their lives. The kids are irresistibly lovable, and while López uses magical realism (graffiti that comes to life; a trail of blood that leads Estrella around) to soften the blow, she doesn’t shy away from the brutal realities. I’ve seldom seen such lyrical poignance in such a sad setting.
(Screened at Fantastic Fest 2017.)