Considering that a certain Oscar winner has agreed to produce her next film, Issa López must be considered an essential voice in modern genre cinema. Her latest feature, which closed out the Boston Underground Film Festival last Sunday, stands as a testament to this. Genre films are endlessly diverse in their themes and perspectives, which are displayed vividly in López’s story of children faced with nightmarish—and very real—terrors. Magic, horror, politics, and empowerment join forces to create the wonder that is Tigers Are Not Afraid.

Young Estrella deals with a world full of paranoia and violence as cartels terrorize the streets. When her teacher gives her three wishes, she uses one to call her missing mother back, but its literal fulfillment forces her to flee the woman’s apparition. She negotiates her way into a gang of homeless boys, where she must learn to fight against the criminals who wish to kidnap and kill them. As their vengeful enemies hunt them down, Estrella faces the consequences of her wish, while proving what it means to be brave.

This is a children’s story, and that is reflected in the story’s supernatural elements, but the reality of their situation is horrifying in its own right. The young actors are impressively comfortable in their environment, giving the story both a charming toughness and vulnerability. Their presence allows the superstition and magic to feel absolutely real, although even with ghosts and devils lurking in the peripheries, the nightmare never strays from humanity. López uses her fantastical elements to make the story palatable, to give it hope. Kids face horror all the time, we must remember, and they often don’t have magic to protect them. This film isn’t afraid to tread into profoundly dark territory, either—there’s no escapism here. For that reason, López’s story never feels false.

A naturalistic shooting style paired with baroque voiceover and unusual surreal notes—a snake-like trail of blood foreboding death, spray paint animation, a walking stuffed animal—give the film its unique atmosphere. This is a gamble that can sometimes feel uncertain, and the line between fantasy and reality isn’t always firm, but the force of López’s vision is undeniable. The images—abandoned mansions with walls filled with blood, a burning grand piano, plastic-wrapped corpses begging for vengeance—are potent, and the story balances its elements well between intrigue and terror, despair and hope.

Opening with silent statistics for the missing and dead in Mexico, paired with a teacher instructing her class to write a fairy tale, there’s no denying what López wants to say here. Like her producing-partner-to-be, López uses genre elements to frame a real, devastating story, this one being about children who learn to fend for themselves in a world that has abandoned them. The themes inherent in this narrative are often bleak, but like the best fairy tales, there is triumph as well. Beyond sociological truth, López infuses her narrative with acceptance and solidarity, friendship and comfort in the face of death. The abstract symbols serve the story, but its core rests in the small, intimate moments, which build to a finale that’s both thrilling and deeply emotional. López is a voice that should make us pause, one whose certainty and passion seem essential in a world that often lacks both.

Movie Score: 4/5


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Trailer via Videocine: