starring Paola Lara, Hanssel Casillas, Rodrigo Cortes, Ianis Guerrero
written and directed by Issa López
by Walter Chaw Estrella (Paola Laura) is just a little girl. Her mother's been disappeared by a local drug cartel and she's living by herself in their tiny apartment. She has three pieces of chalk that a teacher's given her to represent the three wishes little girls without mothers sometimes get in fairy tales about abandonment in times of great evil. She uses the first one to wish for her mother to return, and so her mother does. But her mother's dead, of course, and now Estrella is living on the roof with a small band of other young orphans led by Shine (Juan Ramon Lopez) in hopes that the gangster from whom Shine has lifted a gun and cell phone don't find them. It's W.W. Jacobs's "The Monkey's Paw" set against the backdrop of the troubles plaguing modern Mexico, and while it's not entirely clear to the children if Estrella's wishes are actually coming true, it's never really a question for writer-director Issa López, who manifests the subjects of the kids' hopes and fears as animated street graffiti and the sudden animation of a stuffed animal. There are echoes of a lot of things: of Stephen King's short story "Here There Be Tygers", of Isabel Allende's City of the Beasts, and most of all of Guillermo Del Toro's The Devil's Backbone, to which it owes its structure and allegorical strategy. But Tigers Are Not Afraid is most of all its own lyrical thing.
There's a scene in the middle of the film where the children, on the move after their rooftop hideaway is compromised, find a mansion that seems to fulfill all their hopes and dreams. It has an indoor zoo, a soccer field, rooms for each of them. In reality, its roof has caved in and flooded part of one floor; fish freed from a broken aquarium swim there among the filth and debris. There's a box of soccer balls discovered in one room stacked with stolen or abandoned merchandise. It's a derelict house, but Tigers Are Not Afraid frames it as the answer to a prayer. The whole film is about that: how perception feeds reality, changes it in fact, and how the will of the next generation begins to affect the criminal and feckless negligence of this one. It's a picture about how innocence and hope are powerful salves against the evil in the world--and how the lessons of the dead can ultimately provide a direction for the ones they've left behind. López creates an intriguing tension between a literal interpretation of the events of the film and the magical one represented by sentient lines of blood, tiny dragons, and, in one of the great emotional reveals of the year, a tiger in the flesh, appearing as proof of some kind that it's not a weakness, even in the middle of so much horror, to believe in something.