Tigers Are Not Afraid* is an especially miraculous kind of movie, the sort whose influences are so obvious it's almost boring to talk about them (Vittoria De Sica's 1946 Shoeshine and Guillermo del Toro's 2001 The Devil's Backbone are the most conspicuous ones that come to my mind), and yet the end result doesn't feel beholden to any influence at all. It is very nearly a complete original, made up almost entirely of borrowed parts. I have no idea how writer-director Issa López, making her third feature and the first that isn't seemingly a broad comedy, managed to create something so disarmingly fresh out of such familiar tropes, but I can at least say that I consider myself on notice to watch out for whatever she has coming down the pike.

The scenario starts out in 100% neorealism: in a city that has been gutted by violence between drug cartels and the government, a group of kids go on about the business of being kids, finding ways of scrounging moments of childish wonder out of the omnipresent suffering and violence that they've more or less become inured to. Mostly, we follow Estrella (Paola Lara, doing extraordinary work in just her second time before a camera), whose school was closed indefinitely after being struck with gunfire; when she returns home, she discovers that her mother has gone missing, most likely due to the activities of the local gang. With nothing else to do, Estrella manages to finagle her way into a quartet of equally parentless boys let by El Shine (Juan Ramón López), who is in possession of a cell phone with a video that can implicate the fearsome drug warrior El Chino (Tenoch Huerta). Accordingly, the five kids spend the next two days trying to stay at least a few steps ahead of the madman, whose moral compass long ago broke badly enough that he's not even a little shy about murdering children.

The realism turns into... whatever it turns into, at the point where we might pose the question to the film, "so, which city is this?" Tigers Are Not Afraid is a Mexican production, and all the characters speak Spanish, and there are only so many countries with noteworthy conflicts between the government and paramilitary drug cartels, so I guess we could assume that we're somewhere in Mexico. But it seems awfully specific and conspicuous that this doesn't take place anywhere that can be confidently identified on a map. The aesthetic might say "neorealism", but the mood says "magical realism", and that's even before I mention that Estrella has three pieces of wish-granting chalk, though there's a good possibility that what she perceives as her wishes coming true (in horrible, ironic, monkey-paw fashion) is just the result of a panicky young mind overloading from stress and mistaking coincidence for cosmic intervention.

If it's just a daydream in the mind of a lonely, scared preteen, though, it's a surpassingly grim and terrifying one. We've got realism, we've got fantasy - feel like adding horror to the mix? Because Tigers does just that, when Estrella uses her first piece of chalk to wish that her mom would come back. And she does, at that, but as a guttural voice occasionally embodied within a lanky dark humanoid shape, barely even cohesive enough to call it "corpse-like". And having called up on unquiet ghost, Estrella starts to see a lot more of them; it turns out that the one thing that can make a run-down neighborhood that has functionally turned into a war zone even more visually unpleasant is when you populate it with ragged human-ish nightmare creatures. None of these ghosts ever do anything; they just pop up in Estrella's field of vision and chill her right through to her bones. And insofar as Lopez needs them to do exactly the same thing for her movie, it works extremely well. This is a damn creepy movie, blurring the line between the living and the dead in a way that can be genuinely upsetting, while also being genuinely sad - Estrella sees a vision of a living toy tiger at one point, and in context it's a heartbreakingly bittersweet thing, but also the tiger looks profoundly uncanny.

And well, what's wrong with mixing the sweet and the scary? Part of what the film is getting at, I think, is that there can be something comforting and warming to think about the soul going on to a better place, and that staring death in the face is maybe empowering and not just morbid, and also it is horrible when children are the people involved in staring it down. That's definitely part of the point: kids are imaginative and resilient, and can make the best of any situation. The film adopts the perspective of its five young leads from the first moment and never shifts away, and so we get to see their broken down hell world through their childish perspective: as something scary and overwhelming and unknowable, but also as something adventurous and big, and also also as a place where unexpected little notes of real beauty can just crop up from nowhere, and be truly wondrous if you approach them from that guileless perspective. At the same time, it knows the audience is made up of adults, who understand the horrifying inhumanity of the violence that these children have managed to absorb as simply part of their everyday life. That's basically the same as tension at the heart of the balance between realism and genre cinema, and Tigers does a great deal across the course of its running time to play with that tension, all the way up to its superb and extremely surprising final shot (which comes at the end of a superb and extremely surprising final ten minutes), where the fable-like qualities of the movie as both realist parable and ghost-haunted fantasy finally come together in the first statement of actual hope that the movie has ever found itself capable of offering. It should feel contrived, even like a cop-out, but it just works; the film uses real-world horror and fantasy metaphors together as a way of accentuating the very real miseries of contemporary Mexico, of allowing both the viewer and the characters a way to cope with those miseries, and of creating a fable of innocence struggling and breaking in the face of cruelty that does not need any real-world analogue to be moving and devastating. It's a fine, tough, unnerving story about childhood, using its brief running time to create a frantic tumble through several tumultuous hours that have all the sense of epic scale that the tiny protagonists themselves might imagine.

*A rare example of English audiences getting a better title than the Spanish original, Vuelven - some conjugation of the verb "to return", I'm not sure exactly what the precise translation would be.