A dark and profoundly bleak fairy tale set in the slums of modern-day Mexico, director Issa López deftly weaves together fantasy, horror and a merciless realism to create “Tigers Are Not Afraid”, a tragic yet beautiful story of lost innocence as five homeless orphans survive on the cartel war-torn streets.

Estrella (Paola Lara) is at school learning about fairy-tales when the peace is shattered by the sounds of gunfire. Cowering on the floor, her teacher gives her three pieces of chalk to comfort her, telling her they are three wishes. With the school closed indefinitely due to the escalating violence, Estrella returns home to find her mother vanished. When hunger eventually forces her to venture out, she encounters Shine (Juan Ramon Lopez) and his gang who are on the run from a pair of cartel enforcers after stealing their gun and a mobile phone they are desperate to recover.

Lopez maintains an admirable commitment to realism and the chilling indifference of life on the streets and yet manages to seamlessly incorporate fantastical and macabre elements without breaking that spell. The performances of the children are nothing short of breathtaking, all the more astonishing given this film marks the acting debut for them all.

It’s in the visuals, though, that López casts her most intoxicating spells, blending the supernatural with the derelict urban environment in innovative and achingly beautiful ways. Locations, production design and stunning use of light and shadows combine to powerful, quasi-mythical effect even as the film refuses to compromise on the harsh realities of the children’s life on the violent streets.

At just under the ninety-minute mark, the film keeps its structure tight and its pace brisk yet you’ll still have plenty of time to fall in love the characters to a degree that will shatter your heart before the credits roll. Chillingly brutal, exquisitely shot and superbly acted, “Tigers Are Not Afraid” is a masterpiece of thought-provoking horror.

8/10 

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