[Fresh on Blu-ray] ‘TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID’ a spellbinding tale of personal trauma and physical fears

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Travis Leamons // Film Critic

TIGER ARE NOT AFRAID (VUELVEN)

Not Rated, 84 minutes.
Director: Issa López
Cast: Paola Lara, Juan Ramón López, Hanssel Casillas, Rodrigo Cortes and Ianis Guerrero

For the longest time, I thought TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID (VUELVEN) was a myth. A film you could only see at a festival. World premiere in 2017 followed by appearances at 20 or so different festivals around the globe. The distribution came in 2019, and the winner was AMC’s Shudder – a VOD streaming service for fans who enjoy horror, thrillers, and the supernatural. A Blu-ray release seemed improbable. Thankfully, eight months after its Shudder debut, TIGERS has been uncaged from its VOD confines and has made it to the physical media realm.      

With the critical buzz and ringing endorsements from authors Stephen King and Neil Gaiman along with filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, I reclined back, armrests braced, and waited to be spellbound. Less than 90 minutes later, I understood the praise.   

Issa López’s horror fable is likened to a pair of works from del Toro – THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE and PAN’S LABYRINTH – on account of tone and linking the fantastical to the physical with children as the conduits. 

In the film’s prelude, alarming statistics of Mexico’s drug wars and the staggering number of deaths and disappearances offer pause to a critical question: What becomes of the children orphaned after their parents are abducted or killed? Lives altered through no fault of their own, they prowl the streets surviving on whatever they can rummage and steal. Personal losses haunt the children, but a select few channels that fear into seeking closure. El Shine (Juan Ramón López) and Estrella (Paola Lara) are inexplicably linked through their shared losses. Shine’s emotional wound is older. An orphan that spray paints the sides of buildings with his signature talisman, a tiger, Shine spots a Huascas cartel member stumbling down the alley so sloshed that Shine manages to steal his gun and smartphone. 

Estrella’s emotional wound is fresh. During a classroom writing assignment on fairytales, shots ring out a little after “Once upon a time….” Cowering on the floor as semi-automatic bursts echo outside, Estrella is handed three pieces of chalk by her teacher. The chalk signifies three wishes. On her way home, calmness restored, Estrella encounters the bloody aftermath of a cartel shooting. As schoolchildren play with the yellow crime scene tape, a frayed rug lies over the victim. Walking in the opposite direction, a trail of blood follows her home. This supernatural manifestation acts as a metaphor tormenting Estrella until closure can be achieved. 

El Shine and Estrella encounter each other when he breaks into her lifeless apartment – on account of Estrella’s missing mother – looking for food for his posse of homeless orphans that live on a nearby rooftop. Herself, hungry and without options, Estrella befriends the group. However, admittance into the clique comes at a steep price involving Shine’s gun and its original owner, Caco (Ianis Guerrero), leader of the Huascas.          

TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID is charmingly intoxicating, pulling you in quickly as it viciously rips everything to shreds. It’s a chilling fairy tale, like Alice chasing a shot of Tequila with Tres Leches as she tries to make her way into Wonderland. Only Estrella wants to escape, not enter. To get away, she needs to run towards the darkness so that she can be like Los Tigres. They are not afraid.

Everyone loves an underdog story, and Issa López’s feature is just that. Like her heroine, she had to overcome several obstacles, both personal and professional, to get this thing made. Then, it gets made, and the only way to see it is at the festival level. My compliments to Shudder for picking it up for on-demand distribution, with an assist to RLJE Films (COLOR OUT OF SPACE, BONE TOMAHAWK) for the Blu-ray. Arriving in a collectible steelbook, RLJE went all out to make sure that if you knew little about TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID going in, that you would know plenty afterward.   

The most enticing feature is exclusive to the Blu-ray – an hour-long Q&A with López from the Toronto International Film Festival, moderated by Guillermo del Toro. Del Toro offers his interpretations of the significance of the chalk and Estrella’s wishes. Also, part of the Q&A is López explaining the problematic search for young actors who weren’t preening like they were acting for telenovelas. This is expanded upon in the making-of documentary, which highlights the work of acting coach Fátima Toledo, whose previous credits include Oscar nominees CENTRAL STATION and CITY OF GOD. 

Casting session clips of Juan Ramón López, Paola Lara, and the other children are included to further the importance of casting. Completing the supplemental package are deleted scenes, two sets of photo galleries, and López flying solo for a feature-length commentary. 

Movie Grade: B+

TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID includes the following bonus features:

  • Director’s Commentary
  • The Making of Tigers are Not Afraid – Featurette (43:29)
  • Interview with Guillermo del Toro and Issa López at Toronto International Film Festival  (1:03:26)
  • Deleted Scenes (7:35)
  • Casting Sessions (3:59)
  • Photo Galleries

Extras Grade: B

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