Primarily a screenwriter, Issa López adds a director's cap to her repertoire with Tigers Are Not Afraid, a 2017 film from Mexico making its way to our theaters now, and one that follows in the footsteps of Pan's Labyrinth in its darkly intense fairy-tales-meet-real-life storytelling. Are the events real or the imagined result of severe trauma too ugly to face head-on? Whatever the answer, López' glimpse at the underbelly of Mexico is both starkly challenging to watch and powerful in its ability to shine a light on certain horrors.

We follow a middle school-aged Estrella (Paola Lara) in the wake of a school shooting. Her class was working on fairy tales moments before the shooting takes place, and her teacher, presumably in a bid to calm the young woman, hands her three pieces of broken chalk, describing them as wishes. Upon returning home, Estrella finds her mother missing, and using her first wish to find her, believes that she accidentally unleashes something dark on the world. Terrified and alone, she falls in with a group of streetwise tweens led by the charismatic and gregarious Shine (Juan Ramón López). They run afoul of the Huascas cartel—the selfsame gang that appears to be kidnapping women like Estrella's mother, and probably Shine's as well— and together they attempt to stay alive and figure out where their mothers have gone.

Lara works small wonders as a sensitive kid faced with sheer insanity, but the bulk of the accolades go to her costars. Juan López in particular dominates his scenes with a magnetic mix of faux-insensitivity and loudmouthed con man who just isn't very good at conning yet; he's young, as is the rest of the cast, though none are wooden or boring. Quite the opposite, really, especially in a third act series of events that finds our heroes moving into an abandoned building and embracing their childhoods without fear for the first time in who knows how long.

But it's a short-lived respite with the cartel on their heels, and it's tragic watching youths forced to grow up too quickly. Still, as Estrella finds her power and unearths the secrets of her mother's fate, she finds strength she didn't know she had and a reluctant-but-caring family. Tigers becomes more about personal reclamation and growth, will over adversity. It isn't always pretty, but it's a relatable journey told well.

+Beautifully shot; the young cast
-Dull in quieter moments; ending feels rushed

Tigers Are Not Afraid
Directed by López
With Lara and López
Jean Cocteau Cinema, NR. 83 min.