Rating: (2.5 stars)
“Tigers Are Not Afraid” is filled with arresting images: a grand piano, burning amid the bombed-out-looking wreckage of an abandoned building; goldfish swimming in puddled water that has accumulated in a cratered concrete floor, next to a shattered tank. They’re metaphors for civilization collapsing in on itself — and escape, however imperfect, from that collapse. But they’re also very real, maybe even surreal, in this simultaneously gritty and fantastical fable about a gang of Mexican urchins orphaned by the drug war.
The story, a mix of social realism and magical realism by writer-director Issa López, centers on a girl named Estrella (Paola Lara), who comes home one day — after a nearby shooting has temporarily closed her school — to find her mother has disappeared, for reasons that only become clear late in the film. Estrella quickly falls in with a few other lost young souls, for moral support and sustenance. It’s a survivalist group led by the small but tough-talking El Shine (Juan Ramón López), a boy who has come into possession of a pistol and a cellphone, the latter containing a video that incriminates a cartel thug (Ianis Guerrero) and a corrupt politician (Tenoch Huerta).
But the contours of the story do not follow the path you might think.
Yes, the children are pursued. And yes, they are forced to be resourceful. (They’re tragic victims, too, at times. This isn’t Hollywood.) The film tells its story from their point of view, and, like a fairy tale half-remembered by a child, there is a blend of truth and fantasy, with ill-defined boundaries between them. There are ghosts, too, and a talking stuffed animal. And a trickle of blood follows them, quite literally, from one scene to the next.
López elicits solid performances from the young actors, and her vision is clear and uncompromising. It isn’t always obvious, however, what the moral of this story is. There’s an air of wishful thinking to the way things work out, even if a traditional happy ending is elusive.
I suppose that’s to be expected, when kids are the ones who are trying to tell their own story.
Unrated. At area theaters. Contains violence, blood, scary images and coarse language. In Spanish with subtitles. 83 minutes.