With graffiti scrawled on the walls of an abandoned city populated by orphans, Issa López’s poetically haunting fairy-tale Tigers Are Not Afraid (Vuelven) addresses Mexico’s ongoing drug-related violence with an unblinking brand of social realism. Tigers Are Not Afraid finds in dark fantasy the perfect visual vocabulary needed to transmit its pleas for awareness on a visceral level — comparisons to Guillermo del Toro’s sensibilities are entirely deserved.

From our disheartening reality, López took the alarming statistics of thousands of missing and displaced people in her homeland, a phenomenon that has rendered some communities into ghost towns, and formulated a mesmerizing genre knockout where factual dread intermingles with supernatural entities and wondrous visions.

Brutal death has turned commonplace in the unspecified Mexican town where young Estrella (Paola Lara) fruitlessly awaits for her mother to return home. Los Huascas, a ruthless criminal organization, rule unpunished thanks to their ties to politician Servando Esparza, aka El Chino (Tenoch Huerta). Alone in the deserted concrete jungle and fearful of an ethereal voice calling her name from the shadows, the heroine joins El Shine (Juan Ramón López), an understandably jaded boy, and his group of forgotten kids.

Granting the film its own gritty mythology, López introduces the legend of a prince who wished to embody a regal tiger but had lost focus of his self-worth and courage. Interpreted distinctively by Estrella and Shine, this classically devised narrative emboldens them to brave their adult enemies. Intense danger is never shied away from, even when it means putting the protagonists in harm’s way, because in showing their real-life vulnerability to tangible wickedness, López magnifies the terrifying urgency of their situation.

Courtesy of Shudder.

Believably crass and juvenile, the dialogue among the fresh-faced cast represents a major accomplishment for the writer-director, which aligns with her overall conviction of displaying this world as it is, and not as we wish it were. Curse words that some may find shocking when uttered by Shine are in fact native to what they’ve endured, and diluting that langueage would be a disservice to the veracity of the experience. Avidly, López suffuses the prevalent fear with humor in the banter between Shine’s fumbling associates Tucsi (Hanssel Casillas) and Pop (Rodrigo Cortes).

López is speaking to the spirit of the Mexican people, urging us to remember that we are stronger than the evils that oppress us. Our hearts are not beaten, but still beating with vigor.

Otherworldly horror manifests in the form of enraged specters belonging to those who perished in the carnage derived from the drug war. Implied with shadowy figures, gusts of wind and cinematographer Juan Jose Saravia’s tenebrous lighting, at its most assured and potent in confined spaces, the fright Tigers provokes is just as much for the paranormal as it is for the earthly demons with guns and heinous intentions.

Those souls clamoring for closure communicate with Estrella from the underworld through Martín Hernández’s richly textured sound design that keeps their presence unnervingly close at every move. Carefully utilized visual effects that animate imaginary creatures, wall-crawling blood drops, and urban art of the symbolic tiger, which appears painted strategically as if to oppose the posters of El Chino’s campaign, grace Tigers with guileless charm even within its necessarily gruesome context.

A remnant of pure innocence is captured in the plush tiger that Morrito (Nery Arredondo), the youngest and nonverbal member of the crew, carries as a token of a truncated childhood that’s lost all sense of normalcy. Though trauma lurks like a ghoul in their minds, the gang of prepubescent fighters has salvaged enough childlike wonder to smile on occasion. Within the walls of a massive structure, they establish a dilapidated kingdom where they can momentarily be careless once more. Inside that safe haven, Lopez allows for whimsical elements to appear like a makeshift pool of fish. It’s a theater where they get to pretend to be in a talent competition, which may read as a nod to the filmmaker’s previous effort Casi divas (Road to Fame).

Courtesy of Shudder.

Few words and an imposing aura when the camera fixates its gaze on her, give newcomer Paola Lara a transfixing power. She doesn’t look at her life with the buoyancy or immaturity that a girl her age is afforded in a functional society. Forced into adulthood through impending threats that register on her steely face, we also see the aftereffects in the way she silently carries on even when catastrophe strikes. Lara’s role is a performance of resolute duty. Her counterpart, actor Juan Ramón López, is propelled by fury and instinct signaling Shine’s deeply ingrained unresolved rage. Both indelible, their striking authenticity cements López’s emotionally precise directing.

A diamond of a movie, cut with the blade of truth and polished with humanistic magic, Tigers Are Not Afraid must enter the rankings among the best Latin American films of the decade. At once, both of its time and timeless, what Issa López achieved will stand as a reference for genre cinema with political undertones for years to come. Its spiritual relevance, however, may warrant even higher praise since its gift to the audience goes far above shrew social commentary, acting alchemy and marvelous craftsmanship. Its superpower – not in spite of but because of its premise – is the potential to instill hope.

When Estrella explains that, “We forget who we are when the things from outside come to get us,” López is speaking to the spirit of the Mexican people, urging us to remember that we are stronger than the evils that oppress us. Our hearts are not beaten, but still beating with vigor. Stark darkness hasn’t extinguished our inner light. Looking in the eyes of a child who has seen the worst of humanity and yet stands for what’s just, we may see a reflection of the warriors we have always been. Together, unafraid.

Tigers are Not Afraid opens in theaters in New York, Los Angeles and Toronto on August 23, 2019.