As part of Glasgow Film Festival

When legendary horror master Stephen King tweets that a film grabbed him within “two minutes”, it’s hard to watch said film without unbelievably high expectations. And yet Issa López’s third directorial feature magically manages to exceed such praise and provide a dark slice of Mexican life that should go down as a cinematic classic.

The ongoing drug war in Mexico has left large numbers of children orphaned and on the streets to fend for themselves. Five such children are our protagonists as they evade cartels and corruption on a daily basis through friendship, commitment and a healthy dose of imagination. For a film to tackle such serious subject matter through fantasy might seem glib on the surface, but López’s screenplay manages to treat the hardships it depicts with the realism it deserves. Take, for example, the opening scene, in which a gun-fight ensues outside a school full of young children. Based on a real video of a teacher keeping her students calm, the film rightfully presents this experience as tragically horrifying.

And yet there is fantasy here. Paola Lara plays Estrella, the sole girl of our gang of youngsters, who believes she has three wishes at her disposal and the film plays this as if she actually does. Or take the ghosts of those murdered in the drug war who haunt the orphans as they seek revenge for their fate. Things are at once fanciful yet grounded in reality, and it’s a glorious balancing act that the film handles beautifully.

Nonetheless, the real magic is in the performances. Child actors usually get a hard time for the work they produce (something Issa López comically mentions during an after screening Q&A), but Tigers Are Not Afraid never falls into this pitfall. Each of them plays their role with an empathetic innocence yet still retain a tragic understanding of their situation. It’s unusual to watch one child perform with such delicacy, and yet here we have five of them.

Tigers Are Not Afraid (Vuelven in its original title) wears its influences on its sleeve (think of the first time you saw Pan’s Labyrinth), but manages to be a confident piece of work in its own right. You’ve never seen Mexico’s drug wars in such a personal way, and to do so with a dose of fairytale and fantasy sounds somewhat ridiculous. But it works. As all great cinema does, it takes a risk and follows through with its convictions. Mexican New-Wave has another masterpiece to add to its books.