Very much following in the same dark tradition as Guillermo del Toro, comes another Mexican director – Issa Lopez – who is also combining the very real-life, everyday horrors of a type of war (in this case, drug wars between the Mexican cartels) with fairy tales, myth, legend and elements of supernatural horror. Lopez has created something equally as powerful and devastating as The Devil’s Backbone or Pan’s Labyrinth, whilst putting her own unique stamp on this fusion of genres. Featuring a cast of five amazingly talented children, this film will pretty much yank out your heart and shatter it into a thousand pieces – so, therefore, is highly recommended.
The story starts with Estrella (Paola Lara) writing fairy-tales of princes and tigers in school, when the peace is shattered by the sound of gunfire. Whilst sheltering on the floor, her teacher presses three pieces of chalk into her hand and tells her they will grant her three wishes. When Estrella returns home, her mother is not there. After waiting a few days, hunger drives her onto the streets where she finds Shine (Juan Ramon Lopez) with his gang of homeless children, who have all been abandoned or orphaned. This includes the tiny Morro (sob), who is mute due to the trauma of what he has witnessed and who finds comfort from his stuffed toy tiger. Shine tells Estrella she can only join the gang if she kills Caco (Ianis Guerrero), who along with his brother Chino (Tenoch Huerta) are leaders of one of the cartels. These brothers have been kidnapping women and children, including (they presume) Estrella and Shine’s mothers.
To say much more about the plot would start to spoil, but let’s just say that Estrella’s three chalk wishes all go awry in some fashion and one of the many morals behind this story is “be careful what you wish for.” The way the supernatural elements are weaved into this film is so innovative – sometimes it is through graffiti springing to life, sometimes it is through Estrella’s dreams, sometimes it is elements of Estrella’s fairy-tale becoming reality. The whole film is seeped in myth and legend and the blurring of lines between the living nightmare of these poor children’s lives and actual nightmares the darkness brings is so clever and subtly achieved by Lopez. A huge part of the success of this film (beyond finding phenomenal child actors) is the location scouting combined with production design. The children find shelter in an enormous multi-storey house, with an over-turned fish tank, rooms over-taken by vegetation and a huge, beautifully lit basement with pillars. It even has a theatre where they play a game of “Mexico’s Got Talent.” The use of windows and light in this set provides for stunning cinematography.
The grim reality of the street children’s lives is not shied away from – their living conditions combined with the violence they face every day makes for a difficult but hugely rewarding watch. The corruption of the society around them, including the cops and politicians, who are in the pocket of the powerful drug barons, is one of the many heart-breaking and angering aspects of this story. Shine, in particular, has been toughened by the world around him￼ and has taken on a paternal, protective role to the other kids. The horror elements are pretty tough to watch because they are grounded in reality (the torture of women for example) but any CGI is absolutely seamless with the reality. Nothing is exaggerated or melodramatic, instead it is skilfully blended, so fantasy and reality are part of a beautiful whole.
At just 85 minutes, this is an extremely taut and tightly structured story, which calls back its themes and motifs at regular intervals whilst still appearing completely naturalistic. The children, particularly Lara and Lopez, are so understated and nuanced in their portrayal of children who have experienced unimaginable trauma. Credit has to go to Lopez, who both wrote the script and must have provided the atmosphere on set to coax these mature performances from ones so young. Lopez is an incredibly exciting filmmaker who, if there is any justice, will go onto have a career comparable to Del Toro. After the “Three Amigos” (Del Toro, Cuaron and Inarritu) have been lauded at the Oscars and beyond, perhaps it is now time for an Amiga?
Directed by: Issa López
Cast: Paola Lara, Juan Ramón López, Hanssel Casillas
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