Distressing and tender in equal measure, writer-director Issa López’s exemplary third feature, Tigers Are Not Afraid, will perhaps inevitably invite comparisons to Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). Both works are Spanish-language features written and directed by Mexican filmmakers; both are bloody, wartime dramas that incorporate fantasy and horror tropes; and both take a similar approach to the subject of real-world brutality. Namely, both films regard humankind’s capacity for violence and cruelty primarily (though not exclusively) through the eyes of children – who may or may not be imagining the fantastical elements that intrude into the story’s events.

While del Toro set his darkling fairy tale in the fascist world of 1940s Francoist Spain, thereby imparting some historical remove to the story, López grounds Tigers in a bleak contemporary setting: a nameless city ravaged by the Mexican Drug War. Much as del Toro did in Pan’s Labyrinth and Isao Takahata did in Grave of the Fireflies (1988) – that shattering ur-text for subsequent cinema about kid-life during wartime – López’s film feels at least partly like an attempt to confront and process an overwhelming real-world evil into a work of grace. If there’s an extra, buzzing urgency to Tigers Are Not Afraid, it reflects the fact that the Mexican Drug War is still ongoing and seemingly intensifying, with organized-crime homicides mounting to 20,000 in 2018 alone, according to some reckonings.

Using a still-unfolding real-world tragedy as the basis for a work of entertainment risks glibness and exploitation. Accordingly, one of the foremost achievements of Tigers Are Not Afraid is that manages to be such a thrilling tale of survival, vengeance, and hope, while also treating its underlying real-world inspirations with sorrowful respect. While there are some traditional fairy-tale motifs to be found in Tigers – three wishes, a magical bracelet, an evil king – the film borrows liberally from another genre for many of its fantastical flourishes: the ghost story. In this, López’s feature bears a closer resemblance to another Franco-era del Toro film, The Devil’s Backbone (2001). Yet there’s something distinctly Mexican about Tigers’ creepy, forlorn, almost apocalyptic vibe that recalls Latin American folk legends like La Llorona. (The subject of a dubious Conjuring-verse spinoff earlier this year.) Regardless, a ghost story – with its unquiet dead hissing for vengeance – turns out to be a fitting template for a tale set in the middle of a drug war. There’s no gloss of nationalistic pride or ideological purity to Tigers’ violent conflicts: It’s just pure greed and craven self-interest all the way down, and something about that sort of petty wickedness seems to cry out for gothic justice.

The hero of this story is Estrella (remarkable newcomer Paola Lara), a middle schooler whose life is upended by two related but distinct tragedies. First, her school is closed after the local cartel riddles it with bullets one morning. While shots ring out, Estrella’s classroom engages in an unfortunately familiar duck-and-cover response – interrupting, pointedly enough, a creative writing exercise about fairy tales. During this ordeal, Estrella’s teacher presses three chalks fragments into the terrified girl’s hand, declaring them to be wishes, in a plain attempt to reassure the child and distract her from the unfolding chaos. When Estrella later returns home to the little apartment she shares with her mother, she finds it empty. Mom never returns home again, it turns out, which leads Estrella to the understandable but devastating conclusion that her mother has fallen prey to the same cartels that have turned her neighborhood into a half-deserted war zone. In a moment of childish desperation, she uses one of her “wishes” to bring her mother back, and the magic works, much to her astonishment – although that wonder quickly turns to horror when she realizes that she’s unleashed a perversion worthy of “The Monkey’s Paw”. Mom has returned as a rotting specter whose gruesome appearance and croaking whispers of doom eventually prompt Estrella to flee the apartment.

The girl thereafter falls in with a gang of tween-to-toddler-aged urchin boys who are hiding out on the nearby rooftops: fun-loving oldest kid Pop (Rodirgo Cortes); acerbic follower Tusci (Hanssel Casillas); wide-eyed, non-verbal Morro; and runty, hard-edged ringleader El Shine (Juan Ramón López). As it happens, Shine’s swagger has been bolstered by his recent theft of a smartphone and handgun from a notorious local gangster, Caco (Ianis Guerrero). This act has only compounded the group’s problems, however, as Caco works for the city’s resident narco-kingpin, El Chino (Tenoch Huerta), a villain whose power is so absolute he’s able to maintain a respectable front as a local politician. Shine has nothing but contempt for girls – a prejudice he’s passed on to the rest of the boys – but he’s willing to allowing Estrella to join their pint-sized gang if she kills Caco with his own pistol. Given her sudden and painful solitude, Estrella seems willing to tolerate the boys’ sexist taunts in exchange for some modest companionship and security. Still, murdering a cartel lieutenant is a deadly serious proposition – especially given Caco’s purported proclivity for kidnapping and dismembering children. Estrella is stronger and braver than she seems to realize, however, and she does have two wishes left…

In the original Spanish, López’s film is known as Vuelven (roughly translated as “They Come Back”), but this is the rare case in which the English localization is more evocative. The tigers of the title refer partly to a local rumor an escaped tiger from a slain cartel leader’s private menagerie, and partly to the more abstract fairy tale device of a wild predator – the proverbial ravening beast (oh my!) stalking through the forest primeval. To Estrella and her newfound companions, the tiger is not a fearsome enemy, but a totem animal they identify with – as seen in Morro’s stuffed tiger toy and the crude but bold drawings of leaping, grinning cats that Shine spray-paints on neighborhood walls. The crucial question facing the children – a question that López’s screenplay is bold enough to pose explicitly – is this: Which aspect of the tiger will they ultimately favor? Are they lost and frightened exiles, turned out into a strange world by violence they barely understand? Or are they proud princes and warriors, the masters of all they survey?

While the potential for a violent death at the hands of narcos is the most obvious peril faced by Estrella, Shine, and the other children, this conflict is only one aspect of the story López is striving to tell. Indeed, one of the most impressive things about Tigers Are Not Afraid is how elegantly it weaves together multiple plot threads, tonal shifts, and cultural observations. It’s not mere logistical plate-spinning, but graceful multi-dimensional storytelling. Tigers functions quite well as viciously cruel thriller about a handful of orphaned street children plotting to eliminate a drug kingpin. However, it’s also an observational piece about the grinding hardships (and simple, stolen joys) of being a child sans adult in an uncaring, dangerous environment. In this, the film shares at least some DNA with “kids on their own” features such as Nobody Knows (2004), Before Your Eyes (2009), and Capernaum (2018) – although López replaces the miserablism that can afflict this sub-genre with the acute, looming menace of a horror feature.

Meanwhile, Tigers is also a wish-fulfillment ghost story about the sins of the drug war finally catching up to the human monsters who will do anything to protect their criminal fiefdoms. And it’s also a character study about a girl processing a catastrophic loss that would be almost incomprehensible to most adults. Estrella begins to see the world through a fantasy lens in which a gilded serpent slithers forth from a handgun’s grip, a tiny dragon takes flight from a smartphone screen, and a discarded ramen cup becomes a crackling radio picking up undead messages. The phantasmal presence of her departed mother is distressing rather than comforting to Estrella, but it gradually becomes apparent that her tragedy is but one of many – that the cartels have the left a veritable legion of restless dead in their wake. López ties her film’s myriad thematic components together with a vivid visual device: a thin, snaking trail of blood that seems to follow Estrella’s footsteps throughout the film, racing along floors and discoloring walls with its crimson touch. Like all the best symbols, this scarlet thread can be interpreted in numerous ways, all of them meaningful – as a still-twitching traumatic event; as the staining shadow of violence; or as a karmic reckoning coming home to roost.

Throughout Tigers Are Not Afraid, López wonderfully illustrates how a lean, straightforward screenplay can be used to tell a rich, complex story. Nestled within Estrella’s journey out darkness are sharp but sleek observations about the importance of personal mythology, the internalization of burdensome guilt, and the perpetuation of toxic masculinity. The tell that Tigers was made by a woman filmmaker is its genuine yet matter-of-fact depiction of the schoolyard sexism that the boys fling at Estrella, not to mention the pouting pettiness that Shine exhibits when his dominance is threatened by a mere girl. In terms of its thematic ambition, the other feature that Tigers recalls is Alejandro González Iñárritu's Biutiful (2009), another Spanish-language tale of personal loss, globalized misery, and magical realism. Unlike that unwieldy film, López manages to syncretize her feature’s elements into a lithe, compact whole, telling a Grimm-worthy modern folktale that is at once utterly pitiless and deeply touching.

Rating: A-