Tigers Are Not Afraid is not Mexican director Issa López’s debut film, but for most people outside Mexico, it might as well have been. For the 17 years before Tigers Are Not Afraid‘s worldwide premiere at Fantastic Fest, López wrote a string of forgettable Mexican comedies and TV shows, directing a few features as well. However, almost instantly after its festival screenings she was hailed as a new voice in genre filmmaking, and scored deals with Guillermo Del Toro, Blumhouse and Noah Hawley.
The influence of the work of Guillermo Del Toro on the film is undeniable, but partly due to its budgetary constrains, it’s more “realistic” in appearance than much of Del Toro’s work: it doesn’t have huge flights of fantasy, and many of the fantastical aspects are only implied. The film is centred around Estrella (Paola Lara), who is given a magical piece of chalk when her school closes after drug cartel violence. She knocks around with a group of friends who are street kids in an unnamed Mexican city. The world they inhabit is full of ghosts, both figuratively and literally, that are a result of the violence they face every day.
The film isn’t perfect by many means, and at times it’s a little ragged around the edges—but the pure cinematic imagination on the screen is intoxicating. The kids were not professional actors but are complete naturals. They were enrolled in an improvisation class with an acting coach prior to the shoot. The young actors were never given a finished script, so their reactions on the screen are all genuine. The fantastical elements have a real hand-made quality, for example the tiger of the film is just an animated doll.
Mexican culture and, in turn, their few forays into fantastical filmmaking, ghosts or monsters etc., are depicted as not something to be scared of but simply aspects of existence, and rarely as malevolence entities. The real monsters in the end are human beings. Tigers Are Not Afraid is a wonderful little film that if anything feels a little too short at just 82 minutes. López never overexplains the story, and has absolutely no interest in revealing whether the fantastical elements are just products of a young girl trying to survive the trauma she has faced, or something more. Issa López now faces a Herculean feat—living up to the promise of this film with her follow-up but she has all the hallmarks of a great director going forward.
The film is available on Shudder, and is hands down the best film they have released by a large margin. However if you are one of those people who only gets Shudder for Joe Bob Briggs’ The Last-Drive In for the couple of months that it’s on you are in luck because Acorn Media has released Tigers Are Not Afraid on Blu-Ray and DVD. The UK disc isn’t barebones, either, as it replicates the extras on the US release. These include a commentary track with López, a 43-minute making-of documentary, an hour plus conversation with López and Guillermo Del Toro, eight minutes of deleted scenes, footage of the casting sessions and a couple of photo galleries comprised of concept art, graffiti art and behind the scenes photos.