In the coming years, director Issa López's "Tigers Are Not Afraid" will inevitably be spoken of in the same reverent tones as "Pan's Labyrinth," a movie which completely redefined the boundaries of its chosen cinematic perspective and delivered an experience that tugs at your heart while exploring the truly dark depths of of human nature. Filled with ghosts, violence stemming from drug cartel wars and the beauty of youthful resilience, "Tigers Are Not Afraid" is a film that's both gorgeous and garish, vivid and volatile -- paralleling the vicious and joyful journey we make to discover our place in the world while being surrounded by all the cruelty that can be leveled at us. López is able to tap into those primal emotions to create a narrative that embraces the darkest parts of ourselves while also highlighting our capacity for compassion.
The film follows a group of orphaned children trying to survive on the streets of some unnamed Mexican city. The cartels are kidnapping kids, killing women and even have a political candidate with criminal ties trying to win public office. This is not a place where the barest bit of light is supposed to exist. However, these children find a measure of security in their makeshift home of garbage and stolen phones and thrive on the emotional connections that they've formed with one another. Led by Shine, the group acquires a new recruit with Estrella, a young girl whose mother was abducted by one of the local gangs. Earlier in the film during a school shooting, her teacher handed her three pieces of chalk, telling her that these represent three wishes that she can make. But the wishes don't always work out the way they are supposed to (and maybe don't work at all).
As we become closely tied to the lives of these young survivors, we begin to see how everything is connected: the gangs, the ghosts and even a lighter than Shine carries around with him. And while there are some who have described this as an adult fairy tale, the film doesn't use its brief moments of fantasy to dull the edge of reality, just the opposite. These flashes of light and mystery only heighten the sense of tangible danger and honest sentiment that the movie explores. These is no safe place here, no welcoming parents or supportive structure in place to help them. They live because this is all they've ever known, and it has bred in them a fierce desire to stick together, to push back against the encroaching darkness by locking their shoulders and screaming into the faces of the shadows.
López is able to draw miraculous performances from her young cast, allowing them to feel their way through the characters rather than just read static lines from a page. And even when the movie turns supernatural for a short time, there is never a moment when you get a sense that we're aren't living in reality, that the world is still trying to force itself into the lives of these kids., always watching and always eager to tear something precious from them. But "Tigers Are Not Afraid" isn't something that wallows in sadness or the desperation of hopeless situations -- it finds the humanity in such terrible places and experiences, when when it's not readily apparent. These children represent the best in us, and we're able to find common ground in their struggles, even if we ourselves have never had to endure anything of this magnitude.
There is a moment at the end that is so emotionally overwhelming that you're simply struck slack-jawed and humbled at the infinite beauty on display. Because after everything we've seen, how can this kind of thing exist? Do we even deserves this? We feel as though we've become a part of their lives and have a vested interest in their safety and security. There are tears, horrifying consequences and images that defy logic, but in the end, those same things are life, and "Tigers Are Not Afraid" is not afraid to show us that maybe there is some beautiful fantasy left in this dark place, that maybe, through the eyes of these children, we can come to see that there have always dragons and ghosts that have walked beside us as we took our first steps out into the world.