Soon after a title card pays its respects to the 200,000 people abducted and killed in Mexico’s ongoing drug war, we watch a young girl, Estrella, enter her empty house and encounter an unthinkable silence. She leaves school early after gunfire shatters her classroom windows; on her walk home, she passes a bloody corpse veiled by a rug, and sees kids playing limbo with caution tape. Despite the world around her, Estrella (Paola Lara) stays fairly composed, until she calls out to her mother and hears nothing in return.
Grappling with that absence propels Estrella into her imagination—not to construct a rosier reality, but to equip herself to survive. This unsentimental resilience makes storytelling both a weapon and a shield for the orphaned children in Tigers Are Not Afraid, all of whom have lost their families to human trafficking and organized crime. Writer-director Issa López openly distances her story from sensationalistic depictions of this conflict; when these kids happen to watch a movie filled with gunfights, they groan. Instead, López thoughtfully weds magic realism to horror tropes as Estrella processes her mother’s disappearance. Allotted three wishes, fairy-tale-style, by a teacher during the lockdown, Estrella first asks for her mother to return—only for her to reappear as a reanimated plastic-wrapped corpse. This supernatural manifestation of grief may evoke Guillermo del Toro, an avowed López fan, but López, herself a novelist, embraces literary influences like Gabriel Gárcia Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude: as a serpentine trickle of blood pursues Estrella down hallways, history’s traumas physically enter the present.
Plagued by these visions, Estrella soon joins up with a group of elementary school–aged boys led by the brooding Shine (Juan Ramón López). Their cheeky rapport is offset by the precariousness of their safety: they have been in a rough standoff with the Huascas, the gang responsible for fracturing their families, ever since Shine swiped a cell phone from one of their members. Moving back and forth between the kids’ hangouts and their confrontations with the Huascas, director López melds an everyday levity with an omnipresent sense of danger—a duality of perspective that preoccupies Shine, who strives to reconcile the will to keep going with the losses he’s sustained. He and Estrella bond over a mutual love of the tiger, an animal he graffitis around town as a protective daemon, since it’s able to chew up its enemies without forgetting the roots of its vengeance. Conversely, the characters carry an existential awareness that resistance or revenge will never bring back their loved ones.
López’s conscientious tonal shifts add up on paper, but often leave behind unrealized scraps of feeling. Estrella’s single flashback to time spent with her mom—a night of storytelling, a promised bracelet—lands without distinctive emotional bite, and all of her heart-to-hearts with Shine end abruptly, just shy of extending beyond platitudes. The film moves too quickly to give its nuances room to breathe, which, in turn, makes the final plot twists seem generic. Its concluding flight of fantasy contrasts intriguingly with the ending of Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, also about children navigating circumstances beyond their control. Baker’s portrait of post-crash Orlando is so rooted in detail—in character, in setting, in situations—that his final jump out of the real feels not just devastating and surprising, but a natural end point of a structuring emotional flow. López wants to give Estrella a more uplifting, if bittersweet, ending, but lacks similarly certain footing in her character’s arc. Despite the beauty of her final tableau, she overlooks the emotional buildup that would have made it memorable.
Chloe Lizotte writes on film and music for Reverse Shot, Screen Slate, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. She lives in New York.