Based on the real problem of children left vulnerable when their parents are captured or killed by Mexican drug cartels, Issa López’s horror take is cast primarily with child actors who do a decent job of carrying the story. Integrating fable-like elements and some competent special effects, the result is engaging although somewhat marred by sentimentality.
Estrella (Paola Lara) sits in class writing a fairytale about princes and tigers when a gun fight sees them all hit the floor to hide. To help her quell her fear, the teacher hands her three pieces of chalk, telling her they are her three wishes. When she returns home, she passes the body of a man and when his blood snakes out and follows her, we know that something is not right. At home, her mother has gone, taken by one of the Huasca gang, lead by erstwhile politician El Chino (Tenoch Huerta). Using her first wish, Estrella wishes that her mother would return and her mother does, but she’s not alive.
Estrella meets up with street kids Shine (Juan Ramón López), Pop (Rodrigo Cortes), Tucsi (Hanssel Casillas) and Morro (Nery Arredondo) and they reluctantly let her join them, testing her courage along the way. Soon they are all caught up in Chino’s search for them and some incriminating evidence they unknowingly hold.
After the first scene, other than the gang members, the children are pretty much the only people we see. It gives a sense of the streets at night being deserted and them living in a limbo that is at times otherworldly, at times tragically real. There’s a fair bit of relatively unquestioned machismo and Shine blames Estrella for everything, even though it’s usually his fault. Much is made of Estrella being ‘only a girl’ and although she does have moments of power, particularly when using her wishes, she does a lot of whimpering and running (in a way the boys don’t).
The horror elements are quite nicely done, with enough suspense and ambiguity to keep them spooky rather than laughable. The kids do a pretty good job, particularly Lara, although I was disappointed at the descent into sentimentality at a few critical moments. When a film needs musically-enforced emotion, it’s not doing its job. The film title is self-explanatory as the theme of tigers and fear/courage is overtly spoken of through voice-over and animated graffiti . The original title Vuelven translates as ‘Return’, which is understandable once you’ve seen the film but perhaps less memorable.
Being a fable, the story ends with audience-pleasing fantasy but it somehow felt like it undermined the reality for children like these.
Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.