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Tigers Are Not Afraid follows a group of orphaned children armed with three magical wishes, running from the ghosts that haunt them and the cartel that murdered their parents.Courtesy of TIFF

  • Tigers Are Not Afraid
  • Written and directed by Issa Lopez
  • Starring Paola Lara and Juan Ramon Lopez
  • Classification 14A
  • 83 minutes

Rating:

3.5 out of 4 stars

Sicario by way of Pan’s Labyrinth – but not at all as misbegotten as that sounds – Issa Lopez’s magical-realist blood-bath Tigers Are Not Afraid is one of the best surprises of the summer. Although it’s unfair to call it a summer 2019 movie, as Lopez’s startling work has been making the festival rounds for almost two years now, collecting awards along the way but struggling to find a distributor savvy enough to market its dark narrative and darker aesthetic. (The horror-streaming service Shudder has finally picked it up, with TIFF’s Lightbox securing a short Toronto-exclusive theatrical run.) The wait has been worth it, though, as general audiences are now finally able to witness Lopez’s deft, enormously affecting genre-juggling act.

In a Mexican town torn apart by drug violence, a group of orphaned children do their best to survive. Their existence is pitiless and cruel, until one day the young Estrella (Paola Lara) makes a wish to see her missing mother, presumed to be dead at the cartel’s hands. And so begins a ghost story that mixes supernatural horror with the everyday terror of life under relentless gang warfare and police indifference.

Lopez’s influences are obvious – there’s a reason that Guillermo del Toro is introducing the film’s Aug. 23 Lightbox screening – and her film’s final few minutes risk crossing over into mawkishness. But the filmmaker has such a strong command of mood, character and performances – especially impressive given the age of her cast – that her world quickly, seductively overwhelms.

Tigers Are Not Afraid opens Aug. 23 at the TIFF Lightbox in Toronto before becoming available on Shudder in September.

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