“Tigers Are Not Afraid” unfolds in a world of hellish incongruities. It is both a war zone and a playground, a blood-spattered landscape of shadowy streets and rooftop hideaways where children run, laugh and play, even as they seek shelter from — and, ultimately, fight back against — the very bad men who have turned them into orphans. If you’ve followed the reports that have emerged from Mexico since 2006, when the government initiated its military crackdown on the drug trade, this violent fictionalized dispatch from the front lines might initially strike you as all too grimly familiar.
But the writer-director Issa López is a fantasist as well as a realist, and she has the inspiration to refract the brutal atrocities of the drug war through the prism of a fairy tale. Winged insects and slithering reptiles burst forth from the nooks and crannies of Ana Solares’ production design. The graffiti images on the walls have a habit of leaping to life, especially the growling tiger invoked by the movie’s title and the characters’ dialogue. A thin, red trail of blood flows down streets and up stairs, wending its way through the story with supernatural stealth and purpose.
The story’s young heroine, Estrella (an excellent Paola Lara), first notices that blood trail creeping across the walls of her home after an especially (though perhaps not unusually) violent day at school. Estrella has already heard gunshots ring out near her classroom and passed by a fresh corpse on her way home, and the blood feels like a warning of more horrors to come. The worst may have already happened: Her beloved mother is nowhere to be found, and Estrella has little reason to doubt the neighborhood kids who tell her she was abducted and possibly killed by the cartel.
The rest of this fleet, ferocious movie will follow Estrella’s quest to find her mother, an adventure she undertakes with the help of those other children, who have also been violently separated from their families. Their ringleader is El Shine (Juan Ramón López), a tough kid who recently swiped a gun and a phone from a local cartel thug named Caco (Ianis Guerrero). This sets in motion a turf war, in which Estrella will find herself playing a prominent role. Like many a fairy-tale protagonist, she has been granted three wishes, a gift that will reveal itself to be something of a curse as none of her desperate, well-intentioned requests plays out as she’d hoped or expected.
Something similar could be said of “Tigers Are Not Afraid,” a nervy and imaginative piece of filmmaking that, on a scene-by-scene basis, has trouble living up to its obvious ambition. The fusion of historical trauma and magical realism owes a clear debt to Guillermo del Toro — those insects might have fluttered in from “Pan’s Labyrinth” — and its purpose, in this context, is not all that different: to blur the boundaries between reality and myth, and to illuminate a dark chapter of human history using the storybook archetypes of good and evil.
Like “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Tigers Are Not Afraid” is a child’s fable that is itself far too graphic and grim to be appreciated by children. Far from being a problem, this contradiction is evidence of a certain integrity, a determination to use a young girl’s perspective to amplify rather than soft-pedal the horrors of war. On an elemental level, it is hard not to be affected by the clash between these kids, who have had to grow up far too soon, and the gun-toting monsters in their midst.
Both the emotion and the horror might have taken still deeper root if the world of the movie felt less hectic and more coherently realized, if the supernatural touches and occasional jump scares welled up organically from within rather than feeling smeared on with a digital trowel. In pacing this thriller at breakneck speed, López never quite gives it the dreamlike flow and propulsion it needs. The filmmaking, with its fidgety editing and wobbly handheld camerawork, often suggests a self-conscious approximation of gritty intensity rather than the real thing.
Lara is a remarkable young actress, with a gaze that magnetizes even the camera’s easily distracted attention. Even at Estrella’s most fearful, her underlying courage is never in doubt, and she rightly occupies this movie’s moral center of gravity. Your heart can’t help but go out to her, even when you are left feeling more like a sympathetic observer of her journey than a wholly engaged companion.
Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes
Playing: Starts Aug. 23, Alamo Drafthouse, Downtown Los Angeles; Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica; Laemmle Playhouse, Pasadena; Laemmle Noho, North Hollywood; Frida Cinema, Santa Ana