Fairy tales aren’t ways to avoid the horrors of the world; fairy tales are ways to provide a buffer from the horrors of the world. Sometimes those buffers are thicker than others. In the case of Tigers Are Not Afraid, that buffer is razor-thin.

Set in a modern-day Mexican border town destroyed by the cartels, Tigers Are Not Afraid (Vuelven — literally: They come back) is a story of innocence lost. Or maybe, innocence never allowed to blossom. Estrella (Paola Lara) wants to find her mother, but Mom might already be dead. While at school, a shooting erupts in the streets and Estrella’s teacher gives her three pieces of chalk and grants her three wishes. As these things go, Estrella realizes that each of her wishes will come true, just not in the way she hoped they might.

On her walk home, Estrella passes a murder scene. Violence is casual, and death is ubiquitous. Estrella turns to leave, but the murder scene follows her wherever she goes, like a serpent hiding among apples. All the while: A story of a prince who wanted to become a tiger, because tigers are not afraid. But the prince was not worthy of such an honor, and now the tiger is loose, feeding on the weak and the helpless.

What does the tiger represent? To some of the kids: strength and power. To others: death. It’s a mean old world for these children; even their stories fail to bring comfort.

Written and directed by Issa López, Tigers Are Not Afraid is a brutal and enchanting movie. Running a spare 83 minutes, Tigers sticks close to the children as they try to stay alive in a world that doesn’t value their presence. Most of the time, the camera is situated at their height and captures their perspective through handheld inserts. Not the shaky, nausea-inducing handheld imagery of the Bourne movies or the restless snap zooms and reframes of The Office. This is handheld cinematography as a way of participation.

Even better, López accomplishes much with little. The special effects are minimal, and darkness does the majority of the heavy lifting. López, working with cinematographer Juan Jose Saravia, covers bland scenes with insert shots of buildings and objects to build atmosphere. And with child performers this believable, the sum is greater than its parts. Though a second act revelation lets the air out of the balloon a bit, Tigers Are Not Afraid ends on a strong note and a memorable image.

Written and directed by Issa López
Produced by Marco Polo Constandse
Starring: Paola Lara, Juan Ramón López, Hanssel Casillas, Rodrigo Cortes, Ianis Guerrero, Tenoch Huerta
Variance Films, Not rated, Running time 83 minutes, Opened August 21, 2019