Following an opening text which gives depressing stats on the disappearances caused by the Mexican drug cartels and the orphan children left in its wake, we are introduced to our main protagonist, 10-year-old Estrella, as gunshots violently cut short the school day in the middle of a class given on fairy tales. As the students lie on the floor waiting for the unseen mayhem to end, Estrella’s teacher tries to comfort her by handing her three pieces of writing chalk that can be used to make three wishes.

When Estrella gets home, her mother is missing. There is no one else. She uses her first wish to ask for her mother’s return (hence the original title of Vuelven, which translated as ‘’Come Back’’), which she does, but as a horrifying ghost. Estrella then seeks the company of a group of homeless boys led by Shine, who has a vendetta against a particular local drug gang.

It’s hard not to compare this to some of Guillermo Del Toro’s work, particularly Pan’s Labyrinth, especially with the overt use of fairy tale tropes used within a realistic environment with very real-world threats. The fantastical elements (mainly revolving around the three wishes) are subtly integrated so that their influence may or may not be rationally explained, and most of the time they are experienced by only one character. The point of the movie isn’t of the ‘’is it real or imagined’’ variety, though. This is a story of orphans of the drug war, and told through their eyes; it is never explicitly said why the cartels kidnap and kill the people they do, or what they do to the children they then take. When Estrella stumbles on, and rescues, some children who were locked in cages, we aren’t told why they were there. The children don’t know, so we don’t either. But it doesn’t matter why, just that they need to be rescued. The orphans have their own theories about how these evil men are Satanists and cannibals and that’s the reality of their ongoing battle as far as they’re concerned.

The film would be fantastic even if it weren’t for the fantasy elements, which are integrated perfectly well in the narrative and in the direction by Issa Lopez. The supernatural occurrences are mainly horror-themed, which is fitting considering the subjects explored.  The horrors caused by the Mexican cartels are all too real and it’s hard to make any imagined horror worse by comparison.  The young cast is incredible and the characters well-drawn.

The movie managed what few can’t: bringing me close to tears by its conclusion. It’s an unexploitive, cinematic wonder that sheds a light on a subject that we don’t hear often from the media. Its survivors find solace and courage in fairy tales and stories, but in a world where the monsters aren’t bound by the rules.

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