If you’re not careful, this is a movie that will rip your heart right out of your chest.
Estella is a regular girl leading an ordinary life in Mexico until the drug violence interrupts and takes her mother. She tries to carry on like nothing is wrong until another violent attack happens at her school and her last bit of illusive reality is destroy. She exchanges this reality for another as she is granted three pieces of chalk that is in actuality three wishes for her to use. We enter a dark, dark fairy tale about violence, homelessness, and children forced to survive in an insane world. She meets up with a group of orphans led by El Shine, a conflicted young man who is torn between taking care of the boys in his charge and getting revenge on the drug dealers who killed his own mother. He’s taken possession of a stolen phone from one of the drug runners that contains compromising information on a local politician who is up to his elbows in dirt. Meanwhile, Estrella has used one of her wishes to bring her dead mother back, and this leads to visions of the dead victims of the politician as well as contact with another world. These two stories thread together and combine to weave a new reality, one in which the ghosts are just as real as the depraved cartels. And this leads the characters down another, tragic path.
There’s a lot of lyrical, visual poetry in this film. Even in the midst of filthy living conditions, ones marred by lack of food and health care, magical things appear to be happening. First is the bond between the group of boys and Estrella. There is a Peter Pan thing going on here, with her being their Wendy, and despite the harsh reality of street life, the kids take care of each other, forming a gang all their own. El Shine doesn’t want to accept her into the group or take on her problems (he’s got enough of his own) but can’t help himself; he has to watch out for her, too. They bond over the deaths of their mothers even though they fight like brother and sister. The second bit of magic has to do with the three wishes and the consequences they bring when Estrella uses them. She starts to have creepy, eerie encounters with ghosts and phantom blood lines that scrawl on the ground, following her like a pointing finger of guilt, always trailing, vengeance in search of justice. Again, this all combines to hurtle the story forward to its inevitable, dark conclusion.
The characters are rich and vivid. It’s hard not to cheer these orphans on. They’re just kids, trying to survive a hellish situation. Their mantra is that they must be like tigers, and tigers are not afraid. But it’s a dark jungle out there, full of traps and predators that even come after tigers. The kids hang on, as best they can, clinging to each other, as the forces of evil gathers around them, hunting them down.
This is not an easy film to watch. The reality of the situation is that real men, evil men, are doing such things even as I type this. Children are left to fend for themselves on the streets because of corruption, drug wars, and violence. Combine this with the rich imagery of the haunted ghosts lurking at the edges of this narrative and the movie can be a bit disheartening at times. But whenever it gets bleak, the shining heart of the children comes through, and mysterious, magical things happen to keep that darkness at bay just enough, just enough.
Not much more can be said without giving away crucial and key plot points. I will say this: the film delivers on every level, from the emotional to the logical. This is horror, one that portrays real-life terror combined with the supernatural. The closest comparison would be to something like Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone and yes, this movie is just as good, if not better.
The phantasms of war and violence are alive and real, and their effects echo down through the generations. At the beating heart of this grim, awful world are the children, trying to stay alive, whispering to themselves in the lonely, cold dark, “Tigers are not afraid,” trying to bolster their courage to get through another day. All the while, they carry the ghosts of their pasts with them as they try to thread their way into some kind of sustainable future.
Tigers may not be afraid, but you will be.
Four Buckets of Blood out of Four
Kelly is the author of dozens of stories and dozens of reviews, he likes to write, he likes to read, he likes going to the movies, and he loves to laugh. He hails from the wilds of Kentucky and if you'd like to see more of his work, check out his website: www.kellymhudson.com