The best thing about film festivals is the discovery of films that would have gone overlooked in any other setting. Fantastic Fest in particular, thanks to its unique ticketing system, makes finding sleeper hits even easier. All of this to say that Issa Lopez’s supernatural horror-fantasy had zero buzz going in, and wound up knocking festival goers off their feet and leaving everyone in a puddle of emotions.

The simplicity lends a sense of realism to a dark reality, and gives a sense of bittersweet wonderment to moments of fantasy.  

Sharing a spiritual D.N.A. with Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth or The Devil’s Backbone, Lopez sets her feature in modern day slums of Mexico ravaged by drug cartels and gang wars. When 10-year old Estrella’s mother goes missing, she joins a gang of street children orphaned by the gangs. This triggers a series of supernatural and real terror culminating in a harrowing collision between the street children and the ruthless gang.

Lopez paints a bitter truth; in drug war ravaged border towns, people go missing all the time. Mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters disappear without a trace, leaving behind those that must struggle to survivor in their absence. The police would rather look the other way than get involved, for their own safety. For the children in this feature, that means a strange purgatory between youthful innocence and forced early adulthood. For child gang leader El Shine, there’s a world of survivor’s guilt and desire for revenge bearing down on his little shoulders. For Estrella, there’s the strong wish for her mother’s return, one that not only comes to fruition but actually haunts her. In a way, each member of this orphaned group latches on to fantasy as a coping mechanism, but it’s through Estrella that it takes a deeper hold.

It’s the central bond between children and Lopez realistic rendering of what is means to be a child that forms the emotional core of the narrative. Their acts of play and pretend against the imminent dangers around them weaves complex emotions, furthered by Estrella’s terrifying encounters with the dead. It’s easy to see where the story is headed, but that doesn’t make it any less impactful or crushing. The title becomes not only an anthem of the street children but a powerful metaphor. These children are tigers in a world of princes, princesses, and fairies. Tigers must show no fear if they are to survive.

  Sometimes terrifying, sometimes lighthearted, and mostly devastating to the core, Tigers Are Not Afraid should not be missed. 

From a technical standpoint, Lopez opts for simplicity. It’s mostly without frills, save for some of the few fantasy and supernatural elements, but in this case it works to the film’s advantage. The simplicity lends a sense of realism to a dark reality, and gives a sense of bittersweet wonderment to moments of fantasy. Most importantly, it lets the amazing performances of the children truly shine. Lopez’s feature isn’t the most cinematically impressive on a visual scale, but boy is it powerful in every other way.

Following in del Toro’s footsteps, Lopez demonstrates a talented knack for balancing the dramatic social message against the fantastical. Sometimes terrifying, sometimes lighthearted, and mostly devastating to the core, Tigers Are Not Afraid should not be missed.

Tigers Are Not Afraid screened at Fantastic Fest on September 24, 2017.