Issa Lopez was an archaeologist before she was a filmmaker, and it’s clear she took notes. Her latest, “Tigers Are Not Afraid,” is about digging up the past to make sense of the present. It’s a premise that fits right in with the current Mexican New Wave. As long as the work of directors like Guillermo Del Toro, Alfonso Cauron and Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu continue to wash up north of the border, American audiences will continue to get lost in their fairy tale parables. Still, this one is something new. It’s about orphans who have lost their parents to narco-terrorists. It’s also about the power of storytelling told by a powerful storyteller. Lopez may be known for her rom-coms over in Mexico, but this is anything but romantic. When Stephen King is trying to get people to see it, you know it isn’t going to end with kiss.
The setting is a literal dead zone. The streets are deserted thanks to the cartels. Bodies are buried under the rubble. The heroine, a 10-year-old schoolgirl named Estrella (Paula Lara), joins a tribe of orphans after the disappearance of her mother. Her teacher has given her three pieces of chalk for three wishes, but she can’t wish her mother back. Well, not all the way back. The mother returns as a ghost wishing revenge on the thugs who finished her off. If revenge is a dish best served cold, than this one is served with a side of dry ice.
A life without school doesn’t mean life is a 24/7 recess. Smiles are as rare as justice in Lopez’s depiction of Mexico’s corruption. The cops don’t help; the gangs are ran by politicians; taco Tuesdays are no where to be found. It’s a life of misery. Yet the magical realism brings life to an otherwise dull affair. Shot through the perspective of Estella, Lopez brings a childlike energy to her movie. Everything seems bigger through the eyes of a 10-year-old. A scene in an abandoned building reminded me of my own days growing up. When puddles became pools and empty halls became soccer stadiums. It’s a scene that is Del-Toro esque in the best sense.
Lopez has learned two things from Del Toro’s “The Devils Backbone.” The first thing is how to direct horror scenes. As Estrella and company prance through bombed out buildings, you always get the sense that an adult could come in and overpower them at any moment. The second thing is how to direct children. Juan Ramon Lopez is a name to look out for in the future; his gangsta in charge could be mistaken for a four foot tall James Cagney. He spends most of the time calling the shots, even though Estrella has the balls of the bunch.
This is Estrella’s film, after all. And Laura makes her easy to root for. It’s both inspiring and heartbreaking to watch her trying to come to terms with the loss of her mom. That despair not only justifies the nightmarish imagery, but it also justifies the literal bloodline that follows her everywhere. It’s an obvious piece of symbolism in a sometimes obvious script. Even so, it’s a movie worth your time–and if you live in a big city–your money. “Tigers Are Not Afraid” is begging to be dug up.