‘Tiger Stripes’ Movie Review: Fresh Setting and Performances But Stale Plot

Tiger Stripes can be described as Carrie meets Turning Red, which unfairly minimizes the courageous central performance from young Zafreen Zairzal. But even with a fresh settingan all-girls’ middle school in the Malaysian junglethere’s regrettably no freshness in the plot. That makes this only a frustrating watch.

Zaffan (Ms. Zairzal), Farah (Deena Ezral), and Mariam (Piqa) are best friends, though since they’re all about twelve, their dynamic is a hormonal roller coaster. One minute they’re cheerfully putting smiley stickers on everything they pass on their walk home from school; another Farah is calling Zaffan a slut for showing off her bra. When Zaffan gets her first period, she makes a mess of the bedclothes to the annoyance of her mother (June Lojong). All she says is that she’s dirty now.

Menstruating people are exempt from prayers, so when Zaffan is allowed to skip religion class, the whole school instantly knows too, especially since she’s the first girl to start in their year. Farah takes this very badly and turns into a bully. It’s unfortunately not difficult, as Zaffan has been so irritating a friend that there are plenty of other girls happy to join in. So it’s only Mariam who notices that something is really, really wrong with Zaffan. Unusually wrong. The title is a clue.

The main reason to watch Tiger Stripes is for the shifting friendship between the three girls, as they go back and forth between being unbearably cruel and delightfully kind to each other. Some of their time together involves what looks like a scout troop, though no one wants to share a tent with Zaffan, and they make brutal comments about her changing body. The special effects, which were largely done by makeup artist June Goh, achieve a great deal on a clearly limited budget. The trouble is that writer-director Amanda Nell Eu didn’t understand what she wanted us to feel.

The second half of the movie wanders between plot points culled from three other movies, all of which just kind of fizzle out despite the fearless physicality of Ms. Zairzal’s performance. There’s a late introduction of the insufferable Dr. Rahim (Shaheizy Sam), whose participation also cannot be discussed without spoilers. All that should be said is that if we’re meant to take his choices literally, it’s beyond horrifying, and if what he does is figurative, then that’s even worse. The fact it all happens live on social media makes it everybody’s mess, too.

The most remarkable thing is how mean everybody is to Zaffan, including the teachers, and it’s not just her mother who resorts to physical violence. Gabber Operandi’s music does a great job of keeping us inside Zaffan’s head, and Jimmy Gimferrer’s cinematography brings the gross-out moments through loud and clear. But Tiger Stripes’ only point seems to be that growing up stinks. And well. When you’re through the worst of the physical changes of puberty, you get to figure out the best way to use the power you have. Better still, you get to make your own choices instead of having to live out other people’s decisions. It’s such a shame that a movie with such an exciting concept turns into such a drag. 

Tiger Stripes is now in theaters.

Learn more about the film at the website for Dark Star Pictures.

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