Within the first five minutes of the fantasy horror-drama Tigers Are Not Afraid, a young kid wields a handgun and there is a shooting that shuts down an elementary school. The two events happen independent of each other, but they’re both rooted in the violence spawned by the drug war in Mexico. The film follows a group of kids orphaned by the violence as they try to survive the chaos.
As she crouches in fear at the sound of nearby gunfire, young student Estrella (Paola Lara) is comforted when her teacher hands her three pieces of chalk and says they are her three wishes. When she gets home from school, Estrella finds that her mother is nowhere to be found. Realizing she was likely taken by the cartels, Estrella uses a wish to bring her back, but the result is haunting. She sets off to join a group of orphan boys squatting on a nearby roof. They don’t immediately accept her, both because she’s unfamiliar and because she’s a girl, but when she uses a wish to kill a cartel member, Estrella gains their trust.
The death of one violent man is not the end of their problems, as the kids are hunted by more men trying to retrieve a cell phone filled with incriminating images. Estrella and the orphans camp out in an abandoned hotel, and have spurts of joy in between the darkness, like kicking around a soccer ball or putting on a talent show for themselves. They have a terrible life, but they still dance when a music video comes on the TV.
Tigers Are Not Afraid — first released in 2017 with the title Vuelven, meaning “they come back” — is not exactly a horror film, though there are certainly spooky elements. It veers closer to fantasy, with magical realism woven in throughout, including the repeated image of a tiger, sometimes as a stuffed animal come to life, or as a straight-up tiger in an abandoned spa. There’s a line of blood that follows Estrella around, mapping deaths. Estrella keeps hearing her mother’s voice and seeing little black birds, reminiscent of those on her mother’s bracelet. The symbolism is sometimes overwrought, but the fantasy elements provide the levity, or at least imagination, needed to cut through the darkness of the film.
That the kids are young — roughly between the ages of 4 and 10 — doesn’t dissuade director/writer Issa López from showing heavy violence, often aimed at the kids themselves. Multiple kids are shot and killed, and multiple kids shoot and kill others, and the camera doesn’t look away. Tens of thousands of people have died since the drug war began in Mexico in 2006 and there’s no doubt that there are many orphaned kids who have witnessed heinous things, but the film approaches this with a flippancy that is sometimes unnerving. The kids are almost peers to the cartel members hunting them down, plotting and aiming guns with the confidence of hardened criminals who have been there before, despite their young age. The attempt to depict the realities of the drug war’s violence and its effect on the children stretches into melodrama in a setting that is not wholly grounded in reality.
Even with its flaws, the movie still leaves a mark; the ghosts of people who fell victim to the war are haunting, but not as much as the lives of the people they left behind. It’s an intensely bleak way to live, and it seems like it would be impossible to find joy, but the kids always know how.