A graffiti tiger paces behind the bars of his spray-painted cage. Rivulets of blood snake from a crime scene to track characters through paint-peeling hallways. A grand piano burns amid the shadows of a gutted warehouse. Goldfish swim in puddles carved into the cement that surrounds a shattered tank. These and countless other equally stunning images crowd Issa López’s “Tigers Are Not Afraid,” searing themselves upon the brain — each and every one a metaphor (some more intuitive than others) for the dangers that daily face a group of Mexican street children, collateral damage in the country’s senseless drug war.
An established screenwriter still finding her voice as a director, whose script credits run the gamut from romantic comedies to the tense, Tim Roth-starring cartel thriller “600 Miles,” López feels her way forward in a way that simply can’t be ignored with “Vuelven” (as the film was called in Mexico). The title means “They Return” in Spanish, which speaks to a certain ghost-story aspect of her third feature, although “Tigers Are Not Afraid” better reflects the poetic sensibility of a project that defies genre classification — and demands that audiences take notice.
At times, you’d swear you were watching a vérité-tinged social-issue exposé, told in gritty handheld documentary style, only to be blindsided by an eruption of magical realism, which brings a hallucinatory quality to the harsh circumstances that underlie this story, focused on the orphans of the 160,000 adults killed over the previous decade. The obvious parallel is to 1950 Mexican classic “Los Olvidados,” reimagined through the eyes of Guillermo del Toro: dark, fantastical, a kind of waking nightmare for its prematurely hardened protagonists, and yet every bit as socially engaged as Luis Buñuel’s devastating look at the lengths abandoned kids will go to get by. (As it happens, del Toro was so taken with the film that he’s become one of López’s fiercest champions.)
Brutal gang violence is nothing new in movies, although it’s shocking to witness it visited on — and perpetrated by — characters so young, some still tender enough that they can be seen carrying a raggedy stuffed animal in one hand and a deadly firearm in the other, treating each like toys that had been denied them by parents who disappeared long ago. That’s the injustice López seems determined to explore here, questioning how a society can allow such callousness: both the urban warfare that claims their missing mothers and fathers and the inhumanity that follows, as these kids are left to make their way without support in the world.
Well, not entirely without support. An early scene depicts 10-year-old Estrella (Paola Lara) in class, where her teacher encourages the students to imagine their own fairy tale, moments before gunshots outside the school force everyone to duck for cover. In the fear and confusion, the sympathetic instructor hands Estrella three pieces of chalk, telling her to use them as wishes — which she does, invoking a kind of supernatural protection as things grow increasingly dangerous as the film unfolds.
Estrella lives alone at home, abandoned by a mother under mysterious circumstances that become horrifically clear late in the film. In the meantime, “they return” indeed, taking the form of a sinister and downright scary spirit that lurks wherever Estrella goes. This ominous figure moves out of focus through the background of certain shots, creeping up behind her and reaching out its rotten hand to demand retribution. Estrella’s mission becomes to find the gangsters who kidnapped her mom (led by cold-blooded Caco, played by Ianis Guerrero) and let the vengeful dead exact their revenge, and the movie depicts that quest, rendered all the more unsettling by the fellow orphans she meets along the way.
Led by Shine (Juan Ramón López, the most impressive of the child actors), this pack of Peter Pan’s Lost Boys aren’t lucky enough to remain innocent forever, but are instead forced to adapt to the cruel adult world. Toughened by all they’ve seen, these kids think of themselves as wildcats, tagging a crudely drawn tiger on rooftops and alleyways. Though a bit too unsteady at times (in an arbitrary rather than intuitively handheld way), DP Juan Jose Saravia’s cinematography finds both the danger and the evocative beauty of the production’s rusty, dilapidated locations, which get under one’s skin to such a degree that theaters should offer tetanus shots at the exit.
The child acting can be uneven, and the film’s sound design is a little overcooked, rupturing the illusion somewhat, though López needed something to convey that which she doesn’t show. Nearly every scene features some kind of fantasy element, and though a great many look unconvincing, the ideas behind them feel original enough to intrigue: tiny dragons materializing out of thin air, pools of blood that spread in Rorschach patterns, a bracelet whose silver charms spring to life.
The actors may be young, but the story skews decidedly mature. After all, in her commitment to realism, López allows terrible things to happen to the kids — including death in several cases — and that’s a hard thing to accept, not because it doesn’t happen in the real world, but on account of the melodramatic and manipulative way such tragedy is handled. For a film bursting with so many ideas, only a fraction of them seem to work. And yet, as an artistic statement, “Tigers” proves as fearless as its kid characters, and an indicator of incredible things to come from its creator.