Fast forward to 2018. When the Toronto After Dark Film Festival announced its schedule for its 13th year in existence, many titles were being circled in my personal calendar. Jay Duplass in Prospect, J.J. Abrams' produced Overlord and the musical horror Anna & the Apocalypse were familiar films that immediately shot to the top of my must-watch list. But then there was the opening night gala film - Issa Lopez's Tigers Are Not Afraid. Admittedly (and with great embarrassment), I had not heard of the film prior to TADFF's schedule announcement. And the film's description - albeit interesting - was not getting my Festival juices running at Kentucky Derby speeds. But by the time it was over, I was left in my seat with a feeling of wonderment. A feeling that I hadn't felt since 2001. A feeling that I had my next The Devil's Backbone for watercooler conversation.
Tigers Are Not Afraid (Vuelven in Spanish) opens with title cards informing the audience that in just over a decade 160,000 Mexicans have either been murdered or are missing as a result of the drug cartels. And it is in the slums of a seemingly adult-less part of town where we meet Estrella (Paola Lara), a 10-year old school-girl who after some violence erupts at her school is given three wishes to use at her discretion. Estrella is quick to make her first wish. Her mother has gone missing and belief is that she may have been taken by the drug cartel. Estrella wishes for her mother to return, but the wishes grant comes with complications. Estrella's mother has been murdered and her mother's return comes in the form of a bloodied rotting corpse that hardly resembles the loving mother who had vanished from the home. Estrella flees the horror of her mother's appearance and seeks refuge with a group of homeless orphan boys that have formed their own gang. Estrella's acceptance with the group of male peers is solidified after she accepts a dare to murder one of the leaders of the drug cartel violence in the city. Estrella uses her second wish to complete the task that has her now in the wavering favor of the group lead by the group's leader Shine (Juan Ramón López).
Estrella and the group's actions result in them being targeted by a rival gang member desperate to retrieve an item stolen by Shine and it is this pursuit and the resulting violence that eventually leads Estrella to her third wish one that will have consequences but may also be the key to salvation for our young heroine.
Tigers Are Not Afraid is a film of magical proportions that is able to keenly mix elements of horror and great story-telling into an expertly crafted tale of death and survival in conditions unfathomable to most Western mentalities. It is difficult to express how a film that incorporates ghosts, animated wall art and a stuffed tiger who comes to life to provide necessary guidance can be so skillfully entwined in a story that has as much heartbreak as it does heart pounding. Nary a note is misplayed and it is to no surprise to further read that director Issa Lopez has now caught the eye of Guillermo del Toro who is now producing her next effort.
The resulting path is that Tigers Are Not Afraid is not only one of the best films likely to show at this year's Toronto After Dark Film Festival (if they can beat it, I will eat my All-Access Pass) but it is one of the best films of the year period. And it is clearly a film that has given this writer the inclination to grab his bullhorn and shout the praises of a film effort that has already picked up multiple praise and hardware on the festival circuit this year.