The brutality happening Mexico due to drug cartel warfare is frequently reported, but it doesn’t hit home just how devastating it can be on the regular person trying to live day-to-day there. In Tigers Are Not Afraid, director Issa Lopez skillfully creates a world of fantasy and real-life horror to tell the tale of children affected by these bold and indiscriminate criminals.

Estrella (Paola Lara) is a school girl living in a small town in Mexico. Her day in class is disrupted by a deadly shooting just beyond the school doors, and it seems this is a regular occurrence as children skirt the crime scene without much thought. When she arrives home, her mother is out, so Estrella waits. When her mother doesn’t come home, she is scared and takes refuge with a group of orphaned boys living on rooftops of empty buildings. They are victims of the Huascas, a bloodthirsty local gang who have killed off much of the town’s population. The boys are led by Shine (Juan Ramon Lopez), a headstrong kid who is tougher than nails and bent on revenge for his mother’s death at the hands of Caco (Ianis Guerrero), the gang’s leader.

Guided by a ghostly figure, Estrella joins the boys to rid the town of Caco, but a chain of events will force them to take on more than the grief of lost loved ones.

tigers are not afraid

The emotions evoked in Tigers Are Not Afraid are so bittersweet that the film fills you with an ache you won’t be able to shake. I was very surprised at this choice for Toronto After Dark. It’s not their usual fare, but it’s a brilliant film making the festival rounds, and well worth the time of the diehard festival audience. I’m also glad this story is told by someone who is close to the subject matter, specifically to the strife in Mexico, yet it speaks to the lost children of every war-torn country.

Lopez, who also wrote the film, uses the fantasy of a fairy tale to guide this pint-sized crew through real terror. They are like the lost boys of Peter Pan, with Estrella as their Wendy and an antagonist far more ruthless than Captain Hook. The danger is subtly sinister like old school tales with effects like a cough full of moths, the whisper of a ghost, and a fine stream of blood leading Estrella to action. The children are all great performers with a sweet toughness that makes you root for them all the way, and Lopez skillfully uses the environment around them to emphasize just how unforgiving and melancholy this world is.

Even though it’s extremely sad, Tigers Are Not Afraid is uplifting, reminding us that perseverance in a hopeless situation can make a warrior of the most downtrodden.