“TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID”: Little warriors

“TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID” My rating: B (Opens Sept. 6 at the Screenland Armour)

83 minutes | No MPAA rating 

Published September 5, 2019 by Robert W. Butler at Butler’s Cinema Scene

Combining the grittiness of Luis Bunuel’s 1950 landmark “Los Olivdados” with the psychological fantasy pioneered in recent years by Guillermo del Toro, “Tigers Are Not Afraid” plunges into the life-and-death struggles of orphaned children  on the mean streets of a contemporary Mexican metropolis.

The young actors starring in Issa Lopez’ brooding and violent drama were never shown a script. The film was shot in sequence, so that the players didn’t know what was coming next; their reactions are more-or-less genuine.

The resulting film is equal parts documentary realism and  nightmarish fairy tale.

Estrella (Paola Lara) and Shine (Juan Ramon Lopez) are at the heart of a “family” of children who do what it takes to survive. They sleep in makeshift tents, or in abandoned buildings, on rooftops and in alleys.

As we see in flashbacks, most of these kids once had normal lives: parents, school, a permanent address.

But now they are on their own, their mothers and/or fathers murdered or “disappeared” in the roiling drug war  that has claimed 160,000 Mexican lives over the last two decades. They spend a good part of each day outsmarting members of the Huascas gang, local drug lords who would shanghai the the boys as runners and soldiers and pimp out the girls.

It’s a grim life, and as a survival mechanism young Estrella — through whose eyes the story is told — imagines herself allied with fantastic creatures.  Traumatized by her mother’s sudden disappearance, she’s convinced that a fierce tiger graffiti-sprayed on a wall comes to life to protect her. At other times she imagines that a flowing trickle of blood follows her, climbing stairs and zig-zagging across walls and ceilings.

She also hears eerie whisperings — ghosts giving her warnings.

Early in the film Shine, the ballsy young chief of the orphans, steals a gun and a cell phone from Chino (Tenoch Huerta), an officer of the Huascas clan who has unwisely allowed himself to get falling-down drunk on the street.

The gun means that Shine can not only protect his young comrades; he can go after Huascas soldiers who have done him wrong.  The cell phone, it turns out, contains an incriminating video depicting the murder of Estrella’s mother.  The Huascas chieftain Caco (Ianis Guerrero) wants it back.

Things get ugly.

Lopez’ young characters are, psychologically speaking, heartbreakingly innocent. Yet they’re being pushed daily toward violence. When an 8-year-old kills, who should take the blame?

“Tigers…” is not only dark thematically, it’s dark visually, thanks to Juan Jose Saravia’s evocative handheld cinematography.  The locations are a fever dream of urban ruin; the visual effects are sparse but hugely effective.

Lopez not only mirrors recent Del Toro films, she’s teamed up with the Mexican master. He’ll be producing her next effort, reportedly a werewolf Western.

| Robert W. Butler

Read the original review and more reviews at Butler’s Cinema Scene

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Robert W. Butler for 41 years reviewed films for the Kansas City Star. In May 2011 he was downsized.

He couldn’t take the hint.

OKAY, so here’s the deal. I write mostly about movies. One good thing about no longer writing for the paper is that I’m free to ignore the big dumb Hollywood turkeys that don’t interest me. So don’t expect every blessed release to be written about here. Many films aren’t worth the effort. Besides, at my age it’s not the $8. It’s the two hours.

UPDATE: OCTOBER, 2014: Well, here’s an interesting twist. The Star wants me back as a freelance film reviewer!!! Apparently enough time has passed that they cannot be accused of firing me so that they can rehire me at a fraction of my original pay (I gather the federal government frowns upon that practice.) So from now on I will probably be reviewing a movie a week for the newspaper.