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Tigers Are Not Afraid
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by Jay Seaver

"Smart and fierce."
5 stars

SCREENED AT BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL XX: Movies like "Tigers Are Not Afraid" have a tendency to start deconstructing themselves before the very first scene, and this one is no different, with narration about fairy tales and magic, hints that Estrella (Paola Lara) may be embellishing the tale as she tells it and tries to understand it. This is maybe not literal, filmmaker Issa López seems to be saying, but it's certainly how things feel to someone like Estrella, so let's try to both avoid picking nits while also thinking about why she'll approach it this this way. It can be a transparent gambit, though López's film rises well above that.

Estrella is writing a fairy tale when a gunfight between narco gangs spills over into her school, and it seems like she's been somewhat sheltered from her city's violence until then. This day, though, she goes home to find her mother not there, and soon goes out looking. She falls in with a group of orphaned boys with "El Shine" (Juan Ramón López) as their de facto leader. The group has a target on their back, in part because Estrella doesn't really know how to survive on the street, and in part because Shine has picked the pocket of gangster Savando "El Chino" (Tenoch Huerta), leaving with not just a gun, but Savando's phone.

A surprising amount of these circumstances tie together, even though there's not necessarily any reason for them to, and storytellers will often use the climax of a film like this to drive home the point that there's not a greater connection, and that a lot of the world's cruelty goes hand-in-hand with its randomness. López finds something of a sweet spot where there's just enough plot to hold things together but not enough that solving a puzzle ever becomes more important than just observing these kids and worrying about how they handle the present moment. López will occasionally take a detour to the gangsters and push things forward a little, solidifying that while much of what's going on seems arbitrary, it makes a sort of sense and isn't all just magic.

That's necessary because there is magic of a sort going on, or things that play that way. Estrella's teacher, seeing her student frightened during the shooting, has handed her three pieces of chalk saying that they each contain a wish, although it soon becomes clear that, at least from Estrella's perspective, they're the type of wishes that come with a cost. There may not be anything supernatural actually happening in the film, but López certainly underlines how the thought that there might be bounces around the minds of the kids; the picture and soundtrack rumble, and afterward, everyone both feels that they may have some control over their situation and that they are buffeted by forces too powerful to imagine. Other pieces are more obviously symbolic, like the trail of blood that literally follows Estrella around, but they're all powerful, easily-absorbed ways to show what's happening without having either kids or thugs wax philosophical.

López and her team do that well throughout, with clear storytelling that is nevertheless expressive. The kids' city is gray and perpetually overcast, run-down in ways that can seem both dangerous and magical. A segment in an abandoned hotel has danger, but also excitement as kids get to explore and imagine what it was. There's an almost mythic sense of the setting when it's looked at vertically, from the rooftops where Shine and his friends build little communities with room to run down to a street level that often feels like an underworld where dark gods hold sway. It's never pretentious and seldom drawn out, and López stages violent confrontations that are clear and send a thrill through the viewer without ever seeming inappropriately cool.

She's also got a fine group of actors, you and old. Paola Lara is at the center of the story as Estrella, and though she can sometimes play as a passive observer, she gets a lot of little things right, like her body language when she knows she needs to insert herself into this group of boys and shouldn't be afraid because she's a year or two older and smart, but they are wild boys. Juan Ramón López gets a showier role as Shine, with yelling and puffing his chest because he's got experience, but he's good enough to stick the right amount of genuine concern into it, and make the respect he occasionally shows count. The other kids hit their characters' less dynamic notes well, and while the adults are mostly in and out quickly, Tenoch Huerta certainly makes for capable villain, seeming like he'd be threatening to most even if he's occasionally being dressed down for letting a kid steal his stuff.

While the magic realism elements are certainly a big part of how people will describe this film to those who haven't seen it - the story may not be something you see every week without it, but "three wishes" gets one's attention - it's only part of why "Tigers" winds up being kind of terrific. It's a great little movie, with or without magic behind it.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=32212&reviewer=371
originally posted: 05/09/18 20:03:28
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Directed by
  Issa López

Written by
  Issa López

  Paola Lara
  Juan Ramón López
  Tenoch Huerta
  Rodrigo Cortes

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