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Jason Widgington [Film Festival 10.16.18] Mexico horror fantasy

We all know it can be tough being a kid; trying to deal with strict parents and their incomprehensible rules, challenging homework assignments, and the ever-present threat of peer pressure and bullying is enough to make any child quiver in fear and uncertainty. Force the kids to also deal with the all-too-real world of drug cartels, political corruption, and gang violence? Well, that'll send anybody over the edge. In merging the fantasy-laden escapist world of children with the stark and horrific realism of the Mexican drug industry and telling the story from the kids' point of view, writer/director Issa Lopez has crafted a dark and magical modern-day fairy tale full of real and imagined frights.

After a few dire statistics about missing women and children in Mexican border towns are displayed onscreen during the credits questioning what happens to the orphans left behind and a brief opening where a child holds a gun to an obliviously drunk man's head but doesn't pull the trigger, we are transported to a classroom where young Estrella (Paola Lara), encouraged by the prospect of being granted three wishes by her teacher, begins to write an original fairy tale about 'the prince who wants to be a tiger but forgets how to be a prince'. When the school closes down indefinitely after a shooting outside, Estrella goes home to her empty apartment followed by a mystical trail of blood from the corpse of the victim. In true 'be careful what you wish for' fashion, she immediately wishes that her mother would return home to her, setting off a series of events that lead her to abandon her home in desperate fear and try to find refuge in the local gang of homeless boys led by the small but tough Shine (Juan Ramon Lopez). But as it turns out, Shine is in possession of something that the Huasca cartel is hell-bent on getting back from him, no matter what they need to do to get it. Using her second wish, Estrella is accepted into the fold, albeit not without suspicion and resentment from Shine, who is afraid that his leadership is cracking and that having a girl in his gang will only ramp up the cartel's resolve to find them.

What follows is the proverbial game of cat and mouse, as the kids try to stay a step ahead of the Huascas, hiding from them while also trying to figure a way out of their predicament. The almost-lost innocence of these hardened kids is displayed throughout the film, as they take refuge in an abandoned mansion and liken it to a castle containing a pool and soccer field and indulge in their escapist fantasies all while a deadly threat looms over them. In a world that forces them to always be on their toes, constantly struggling just to stay alive, can they truly retain their link to their disappearing childhood?

While there's no doubt that Issa Lopez' influences are on display (there's a reason why Tigers Are Not Afraid was on Guillermo Del Toro's list of top ten films of 2017), by setting it smack dab in the middle of the current world of drug cartels and - hinted at - human trafficking and all of its so-called collateral damage, she manages to stamp her own signature on the film via its social commentary. Using verite-style filming, with shaky camera and sometimes grainy images, but also saturated and slightly blurry scenes of the kids having fun, the war between the worlds of reality and fantasy is on full display. While Tigers Are Not Afraid is not without its faults, specifically in the dialogue of the adult gang members and corrupt politicians, it is the cast of unknown and inexperienced youngsters who carry the film. Of particular note is Juan Ramon Lopez, who - ahem - shines in his first feature role. His depiction of Shine's trajectory from troubled youth trying to hold things together for himself and his followers, through the vulnerability of having his leadership and braveness crumble, to his eventual redemption as a tragic hero is nothing if not a revelation.

With animated graffiti jumping off of walls, stuffed animals coming to life, and even the horrific visions of the dead seen by Estrella, this dark, gritty, and horribly realistic crime story also manages to shine a light on the magic and frightfulness of children's imaginations. No small feat indeed!

Recommended Release: Pan's Labyrinth

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