Homeless orphans huddle in shacks, but have i-phones and a big-screen TV … slightly older kids burn a grand piano as if they had a grudge against it … exotic fish swarm in a shallow puddle in an abandoned building … cops shown phone-cam evidence of a murder personally committed by a candidate for political office roll up the window of their patrol car and drive off. Even without fantastical elements, writer-director Issa López’s film about children left to fend for themselves in a present-day Mexico where whole communities have been turned into ghost towns by ‘drug wars’ is almost classically surreal – as was noted as far back as the First World War when, thanks to bombardments of towns, the supposedly perfectly absurd image of the insides of a piano meshed with the parts of a donkey was in fact an everyday sight. The real horror here, which is only partly perceived by the bruised yet innocent protagonists, is that what seems to be a post-apocalyptic dystopian ruin is simple reportage.
Early in the film, a teacher talks with a class about fairy tales, listing the elements – princes, wishes, castles, tigers – and asking the children to write their own stories … then everyone has to hide under their desks as gunfire erupts outside, the teacher passes three pieces of chalk to ten-year-old Estrella (Paola Lara) and says they’re wishes, and the school is closed until further notice. Returning home, with a thread of animated blood following her, Estrella finds her mother has joined the vanished … and near-feral youngster El Shine (Juan Ramón López) comes to scavenge. Though Shine resists, Estrella drifts into the company of his little group of traumatised, abandoned kids and joins in their storytelling. In the classroom scene, it’s notable that some elements of fairy tales don’t occur to the kids – because they already know that ogres, demons, executioners, witches and bad fairies aren’t just fantasy. When Shine tells the story of the tiger – which manifests in graffiti, a child’s toy and eventually astonishing flesh and fur – he refers to the Huasca Brothers, local minions of killer candidate El Chino (Tenoch Huerta), as if they were legendary monsters. El Shine is Peter Pan to this gaggle of Lost Boys – Tucsi (Hanssel Casillas), Pop (Rodrigo Cortes), Morro (Nery Arredondo) – and resentful of Estrella’s Wendy status. There are contemporary references too, as the kids stage a TV-style talent contest in a decaying auditorium, and Estrella shrugs off a Spanish-language tautology when Tucsi asks her if she wants to be a star (‘estrella’) and she has more pressing concerns than fulfilling that nominative destiny (though Lara and young López are so extraordinarily natural they qualify as stars by any measure).
The plot is driven by tit-for-tat violence and wrongdoing, and is remarkably tight and controlled for what might seem a fanciful, anecdotal excursion into magic realism – angry (and scarred) after the Huascas have burned down his home and killed his parents, Shine steals a gun and a phone from Caco Huasca (Ianis Guerrero), who pursues the kids to get his property back. Resentful of the girl, Shine sets her a challenge to kill Caco with his own gun – which he was unable to do, even with the thug in his sights – to gain admission to the little gang. Estella invades the gangster’s home and uses one of her chalks wishing that she not have to kill Caco, which comes true when she finds him shot in the head … emerging as a local heroine with a killer rep and the rescuer of children she finds caged in Caco’s house. But she realises that every time she uses a wish, something terrible happens – when it comes to the last wish, it’s a truly shattering moment. Estrella sees the zombie-mummy-like plastic-wrapped corpses of El Chino’s many victims, and other fantastical elements crowd the frame – little dragons and snakes curl off Caco’s stolen phone and gun. El Chino now wants Caco’s phone back – for reasons that tie in horribly with Estrella’s plight – and a final rendezvous has to be made with this Demon King, which has an appropriately infernal payoff. ‘I wouldn’t vote for him,’ snipes one of the kids when the monster – an ordinary, unmagical creep – shows up. We, and Estrella, find out what he did to start the rivulet of blood flowing – but even the kids know better than to ask why, for this is about effects not causes.
This is a daring, original film – comparisons have been made with Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone, but those movies have period settings and del Toro consciously adds nostalgia to magic so that both worlds are remote from the viewer. López’s vision is more immediate – this is happening now, and without the closure any historical setting brings, and her magic touches are matter-of-fact and understated rather than avenues of escape. These children don’t yearn for fairy tales because they already live in them – subject to the actions of adults as merciless as any Big Bad Wolf or Wicked Stepmother, as liable to be orphaned and cast into the woods as any princess, and knowing that wishes always come at a price too high to pay. This is an extraordinary film. Most sources list the original title as Vuelven (Return), but the print I saw just had the stronger Los Tigres no Tienen Miedo.