Art and Film: Issa López’s fierce children

Still from “Tigers Are Not Afraid”

Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / Mike Kelley, the late conceptual artist, famously cast stuffed animals both as children’s escape hatches from worldly nastiness and as the potential tools of their nefarious seducers or demons. Writer-director Issa López maintains this duality in Tigers Are Not Afraid, a film of stunning inventiveness, brutality, and compassion. Presented as the imagined fable of an early-teenage girl sheltering in place as her class at school is caught in drug-war crossfire, the story centers on a gang of homeless children, ranging from tots to adolescents, orphaned by vicious dealers and cruising the ravaged streets of a Mexican town on skateboards and the like. The younger ones, playing soccer and marveling at a filthy puddle colonized by goldfish, include the heartbreakingly adorable Morrito. He rides a tricycle, carries a grimy stuffed tiger, and tries to hold onto his innocence. El Shine, the ringleader, is a diminutive and imperious ‘tween. He is already shell-shocked, jaded, and world-weary, venting through graffiti. He and Estrella, the real girl’s counterpart, tall and preternaturally serene, take on the burden of keeping the kids alive.

When El Shine steals a pistol and a cell phone containing an incriminating video from an intoxicated drug dealer, he inadvertently renders his friends’ survival all the more difficult: now the hoodlum and his associates want them dead because of what they know. It’s a richly eclectic movie. Stand By Me comes to mind, and so do Sicario and, especially, Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. Honoring that aesthetic heritage, López uses magical realism generously. She does not employ it cheaply, however, to bridge gaps in narrative logic or perfume the gruesomeness of the circumstances, but rather to signify luck and contingency, risk and threat. A snaking tentacle, representing death, stalks the children. Morrito’s tiger spontaneously becomes animated, like a wind-up toy, pointing them in ambiguous directions. Such devices can lift the film from abject despair, as relief rather than indulgence, even if sometimes they seem extraneous – which itself is testimony to the fundamental strength of the director’s narrative craft.

Still from “Tigers Are Not Afraid”

True to what life must be like in parts of Mexico in which the drug cartels operate – they have claimed the lives of at least 160,000 innocents and left tens of thousands of orphans – the film effuses peril until the very end. That hard-earned moment of respite comes breathlessly, and at very dear cost. The kids need real lead to defend themselves, and some are martyred. López seems to be extolling the resiliency of Mexico’s children while reminding them and others that they will need to summon still more toughness and hope before the country’s nightmare is over, not merely to survive but to stave off their own criminality. In this shattered world, the fierceness of children is neither lamentable nor laudable; it is simply necessary.

Tigers Are Not Afraid, written and directed by Issa López, distributed by Shudder.

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