Maybe being granted three wishes was never a straightforward process, but there must have been a time when they were something to hope for, because despite all the horror stories of wishes gone bad, the idea that they can help prevails. If you can find the right words and avoid being greedy, or saying “I wish” out of context, maybe your life can be changed for the better.
In writer-director, Issa Lòpez’s, Tigers Are Not Afraid aka Vuelven (2017), it’s not just that packaging three wishes as something positive has become a fiction. It’s that fiction, or fairy tales, no longer make out like wishes will work. Set in Mexico, around the drug war that’s been going on since 2006, Estrella (Paola Lara) is hiding under her desk at school when her teacher hands her three pieces of chalk and tells her they’re three wishes. As far as we know she isn’t a fairy godmother or a genie, but a regular, human teacher on the floor with her students after gunshots go off. The chalk could be a simple gesture. Until Estrella doesn’t hear from her mom, she doesn’t think to try her wishes on something less serious.
“I wish my mom would come back,” is a sincere request, made in the moment, by a child who misses her mother and doesn’t have any other adults to turn to – her school’s closed indefinitely, and when Estrella looks for help, it’s from children her own age. For her honesty, Estrella is thrown into a Monkey’s Paw situation, brought on by her first wish. At least in W. W. Jacobs’ short story, it was the second wish and a father asking about his son (he died as an unforeseen consequence of his father’s first wish). Estrella doesn’t realize she’s asking for resurrection. She thinks her mother’s alive.
That her wishes are depicted as chalk isn’t an accident either. Art is imbued with magic in Tigers Are Not Afraid, and when Estrella joins a gang of boys with similar biographies, almost every object in their camp has a face drawn on it – plastic bottles, skateboards, backpacks. Predominantly the work of their leader, Shine (Juan Ramón López), his art installations are a source of strength and morale, while the Huascas gang terrorizes the city. The tiger, in particular, is a favorite among their group because, in their stories, he escapes his cage and goes hunting. The takeaway isn’t violence. Shine knows what it feels like to hold a gun and when presented with an action movie, all the kids are happy to watch something else, but looking the part of a ferocious tiger has its purposes. At best, they can avoid acting like tigers that way.
The one-time Estrella draws a face on a soccer ball, Shine pops it, and while he knows about her wishes, he never asks her to use one under pressure. You know he doesn’t believe in wishes, because if he thought there was a chance they could help, he wouldn’t hesitate.
Chalk is unreliable, apt to wash away. The spray paint Shine uses lasts, with Lòpez lingering on the spots where it drips, like Shine’s art is bleeding, or crying. While fairy tales are often looked to for escape, Tigers Are Not Afraid is about finding an emotional truth, not propagating unrealistic expectations about magic. The relief Estrella finds may be less sweeping, but this isn’t a situation that has a happily ever after. That’s why these problems need to be addressed.