Issa López’s 2017 masterpiece Tigers Are Not Afraid marks my final film for Fantasia 2018. As always, I had a wonderful time covering the festival, and will cherish my memories of the Montréal restaurants for the next year.

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Tigers Are Not Afraid (AKA Vuelven) opens with a set of intertitles outlining the devastation wrought by the violent drug wars in Mexico, spanning a period from their onset in 2006 to 2016, the year before the film was released (at which time, the missing and murdered totalled over 200,000). The intertitles conclude by explaining that the number of children orphaned by this violence is unknown.

Tigers Are Not Afraid is a story about these children.

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We’re introduced to our protagonist, the young Estrella (played by the remarkable Paola Lara), as she takes part in a class exercise to come up with her own fairy tale using traditional genre elements volunteered by her classmates, which includes the magical granting of wishes. When she comes home to find her mother missing, she’s forced to seek out a new family — a group of children who have also become orphans due to gang violence. Led by Shine (Juan Ramón López), the group fights for survival — a powerful cartel leader, Chino (Tenoch Huerta) has realized that Shine has stolen the valuable phone of another member, Caco (Ianis Guerrero) and is determined to hunt them down. Convinced that she has been given three magical wishes, Estrella joins the gang in their attempt to fight back against the cartel and find out what happened to her mother.

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Issa López is prolific and award-winning Mexican novelist and screenwriter, and Tigers Are Not Afraid marks her third feature film in the role of director. The film premiered in 2017 at Fantastic Fest, where it earned the Best Horror Director award. Since then, it’s screened at festivals around the world, racking up an impressive count of awards and nominations and building critical buzz. The film was chosen by Guillermo del Toro as one of his top ten films of 2017, and it’s easy to see why: Tigers is a dark and gritty urban fairytale, infusing a story about the all-too-real horror of cartel terrorism with the resilience and imagination of children; Like Del Toro’s own films, violence, anguish, and desperation are leavened by judicious (and flawless) use of magical realism. López folds in both beauty and brutality, but not in equal measure. The few moments of joy in the film are all too brief, but more precious for their scarcity. Though only 83 minutes long, it’s a masterclass in character development — it’s difficult not to fall in love with the rag-tag group of survivors, forced by terrible circumstance to grow up long before their time but still imbued with heartbreaking vulnerability. Juan Ramón López turns in a particularly strong performance as the angry and complex El Shine, stoic leader of the ad hoc gang.

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Tigers Are Not Afraid is exquisite; a gleaming gem in the crown of Fantasia 2018. I’m truly grateful for having had the chance to see it. Thank you, Issa López.