My Horror Tuesdays have gone by the wayside recently, as I have been reviewing a lot of TV Shows (like Better Call Saul & The Mandalorian) and films on streaming services (like Swallow, Bacarau and Vivarium). This film, however, being broadcast on Shudder, a streaming service mainly for horror movies, feels like it can be both a streaming option, and a horror film for you to watch.
The film is directed and written by Issa Lopez, and is set in Mexico that has been devastated by the Mexican drug war. It centres on a young girl, Estrella (Paola Lara), whose mother has mysterious gone missing. Looking for her, she ends up joining a gang of four children, headed by El Shine (Juan Ramon Lopez). Together, the five of them try to survive against the horrific violence of the cartel, and begin to witness various ghosts created by the horror of the war.
A horror film is probably not the best description for this film, as it is more of a dark fantasy tale that has elements of horror in it. The film feels very Guillermo del Toro inspired in it’s concept, and the best films to compare it to are del Toro’s films, 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth and 2001’s The Devil’s Backbone – both extraordinary films in their own right.
The film really holds up being places next to those films, as it is a really terrific film. Much like Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone, the film centres on a view of a horrific war from the view of a young child. And, much like it’s influences, it’s child stars are absolutely terrific. The central two stars, Lara and Lopez, are both fantastic, and both really evoke sympathy and emotion for their characters. Lopez probably has the harder job here, as he has to convey the sweetness and niceness that is underneath the tough exterior, and he does a really great job at it.
Other characters include the other 3 members of the gang, consisting of Pop, Tucsi, and Morro, who are played by child actors, Rodrigo Cortes, Hanssel Casillas and Nery Arredondo, respectively. These three are really interesting to the narrative, as they provide a more grounded, sympathetic perspective to the hard life on the streets. All five kid performers give strong and emotional performances, and this is especially important for this type of film.
The film, is very much a fantastical mixture of various genres. The film firstly is a horrific imagining of a war time environment, and that is brilliantly captured here. One of the reasons why is the terrific camerawork. The film uses a lot of shaky-cam, which really evokes a documentary-type feel, and this only makes the environment feel more real and vivid. People who are not fans of shaky-cam, needn’t worry, however, because the technique never feels overused or annoying. In fact, it is used just the right amount.
What really makes the film, however, is how Lopez is able to mix this with the more fantastical elements. These moments are never overplayed, and in fact, they are never particularly explained. Much like del Toro’s films, we are unaware if these are real or in the imaginary of our young leading characters. Along with the various ghosts that Estrella encounters, she sees various things come to life (like a teddy bear and phone case), and witness an odd line of blood that follows her. These images are very haunting and strange, but are also beautiful, and they will be images that stay with you long after you finish watching it.
The fantasy elements are really important to the narrative, as well. They make Estrella’s quest for discovering her mother all the more heartbreaking, as we begin to think that she, maybe, is among the ghosts. The contrast between both of the characters’ central struggles – El Shine wanting to find a home, and Estrella wanting to find her mother are really wonderful and interesting characters arcs, and ones that give the movie some depth.
This is a really great outing for Lopez. The film may not be as scary as some of the films I’ve covered on here, and if you go in expecting a film full of scares, you will be disappointed. However, if you are a fan of sweet and soulful dark fantasy dramas, in the vein of del Toro’s films, you will definitely be a fan of this one.