Mexican filmmaker Issa Lopez mixes gritty social drama and fairy-tale horror, largely (and sometimes splendidly) pulling off the tricky combination, in “Tigers Are Not Afraid.” The earnest, original and entertaining tale about children, drug wars and the imagination opens Friday at the Alamo Drafthouse in The City.
A director and novelist whose fans include Guillermo del Toro, Lopez (“Effectos Secundarios”) addresses the plight of kids orphaned by drug-cartel violence in the movie, which opens with disturbing statistics, then shifts into a genre picture. Comparisons include del Toro’s history-laced “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Devil’s Backbone,” while the film’s grimmest aspects bring to mind urban tragedies like “Pixote.”
The Mexico-set story transpires in a literal ghost town where phantoms of innocents killed by drug cartels roam. In a classroom, schoolkids, including preteen Estrella (Paola Lara), take cover as gunfire erupts outside.
The trauma worsens for Estrella when, returning home, she discovers her mother has disappeared. She sets out to learn what happened, aware that her mom might have been killed.
Hungry, Estrella joins a pack of orphaned boys, whose leader, Shine (Juan Ramon Lopez), has stolen a gun and a phone from brutal drug gangster Caco (Ianis Guerrero). This thievery has made the boys a target of the cartel.
Estrella bonds with Shine over their mutual admiration for tigers, and she becomes increasingly involved in the group’s dangerous ordeals.
Lopez alternates between realistic social drama and genre fantasy. The latter includes a snakelike trail of blood, plastic-wrapped corpses and animated graffiti tigers.
A three-wishes ingredient has dark consequences.
Limited by its horror format, the film isn’t profoundly stirring when depicting the tragedy of forgotten children. And the fairy-tale ending doesn’t feel organically compatible with what’s preceded it.
While the young actors perform impressively — Lara is particularly effective — they’re more likeably engaging, rather than deeply affecting.
Still, Lopez has made a cool little cocktail of horrors both social and supernatural, absorbing viewers into a world of young characters in survival mode.
In scenes with corrupt politicians and ineffectual cops, she condemns, without heavy-handedness, the system’s abandonment of children.
More brightly, she captures the the characters’ childlike spirit. In a delightful passage, they make a large deserted house their playground. Also memorable is a sweet scene in which Estrella maternally comforts frightened tyke Morro (Nery Arredondo).
As genre entertainment, the movie also delivers. The trail of blood, spelling doom, never loses its intrigue.
Lopez outstandingly conveys, with Latin American magical realism, the constant feeling that death is present. Additionally, she vividly celebrates the imagination and demonstrates how it helps people cope with trauma.
Also a realist, Lopez forces Estrella and Shine to acknowledge discomforting truths. “There are no wishes — there’s nothing, not even tigers,” Shine determines, in one of the movie’s most powerful moments.
Regardless of whether she will direct another film of this sort, Lopez is storytelling talent worth watching for.
Tigers Are Not Afraid
Starring: Paola Lara, Juan Ramon Lopez, Ianis Guerrero, Nery Arredondo
Written and directed by: Issa Lopez
Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes