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“Tiger Stripes” reviewed

Amanda Nell Eu’s film Tiger Stripes is set in her native Malaysia, and centers on Zaffan (Zafreen Zairizal), a vivacious 11-year-old whose world revolves around her best friends Farah (Deena Ezral) and Mariam (Piqa). Together they film TikTok dances, play in the river on the way home from school, plaster stickers everywhere and talk about bras. They pretend to be kittens and they have a club for the three of them. They are, in other words, typical tweens.

Then one day, Zaffan discovers she’s begun menstruating, and overnight her life changes. In her strict religious school, she doesn’t attend prayers while on her period. Her friends suddenly see her as unclean, dirty, an outsider. They gang up on her. They call her names. And strange things start to happen to Zaffan’s body and mind, including the lingering presence of a red-eyed woman in a tree that only she seems to be able to see.

“Tiger Stripes” literalizes some of the potential side effects of menstruation — mood changes, cramps, body dysmorphia and more — but it also heads in a more fanciful direction, with the idea of a stalking tiger lurking around the edges of Zaffan’s consciousness.

In her village, a tiger is a figure of curiosity, with everyone wanting to look at it and film it, and a source of danger, a powerful being that can hurt you if it chooses. Zaffan begins to feel that’s what she has become; no longer is she the little girl who sometimes misbehaves but mostly follows the rules. She has stepped beyond their reach, and deserves her own kind of freedom.

This primal metaphor feels familiar. But it’s how Eu places that metaphor in a particular contemporary context that really makes it work. Phones and portrait-oriented short-form video are everywhere in “Tiger Stripes.” The girls dance for the camera, feeling some kind of visibility and power in doing so, even though their teachers, parents and other authority figures constantly admonish them to behave and follow the rules. Then an alluring quack comes to town to “cure” Zaffan of her bad behavior, and it turns out he spreads his chicanery through the internet, too, constantly exhorting people to film him and tag the videos when they post.

But “Tiger Stripes” is mainly interested in how the changes that come with puberty, and the anxiety of experiencing them in your own body, can be exacerbated and exploited when your culture spreads rumors about and generates fear of menstruating young women. The girls have absorbed urban legends about periods clearly designed to keep them in their place as they mature. (The movie was, after all, censored for its Malaysian release.) Even though the stories may be unfamiliar to some viewers from other cultures, the existence of them isn’t. Anyone who has gone through adolescence — in other words, everyone — knows the kind of myths, silences and shame that often accompany a maturing body.

Eu smartly weaves that universality together with local myths and legends, and the result is a little eerie and unsettling, a film about dark things we’re afraid to speak about.

Occasionally the movie feels like it’s lost its direction, stuffing a little too much into its story and deflating the ferocity of its central metaphor. But there’s a great sense of humor in “Tiger Stripes,” particularly in Zairizal’s impish performance, and the swing between fear and hilarity make for an engrossing ride. And it’s serious, too: A recurring motif in “Tiger Stripes” involves Zaffan staring directly into the camera, straight at us. She knows we are watching. Her question is what, when we look at her, we think we see.