Before she crafted the icy horror of True Detective: Night Country, showrunner Issa López made her mark with a wrenching horror fable about children facing off against human traffickers. Released in 2017, Tigers Are Not Afraid would become the writer-director’s calling card, a bleak horror-fantasy that established López’s knack for atmosphere and revealing characters via the things they dread. It also broke my damn heart.
Set in an unnamed Mexican city, Tigers Are Not Afraid follows Estrella (Paola Lara), a young girl we meet in a moment of terrible violence. As her schoolteacher lectures the class about fairy tales, gunfire erupts outside, and in an effort to comfort Estrella, her teacher offers her three pieces of chalk and says they are three wishes. Across the film’s 83 minutes, Estrella will use those three wishes, to horrible effect. Orphaned shortly after receiving them, her mother presumably abducted by the human trafficking ring known as The Huascas, what choice does she have?
Tigers Are Not Afraid is an unsparing film. It is about kids struggling with horrible things that have happened and will happen to them, things that they do not fully understand yet must accept and struggle through anyway. As Estrella falls in with a group of orphans that have been similarly victimized by The Huascas (and the politician that secretly backs them), she contemplates how to use her wishes for survival, and recoils at the unintended consequences that come from using them — like Estrella’s mother haunting her as a ghost following a wish that she return . Throughout, Tigers Are Not Afraid injects its gritty crime tragedy with a touch of fairy tale magic; sometimes to underline the innocence of the orphan gang, and other times to provide glimpses at the supernatural world Estrella believes she is haunted by.
Children, as the film’s sometimes messy but effective script underlines over and over again, have a sense of clarity that the world makes them pay for. Estrella and her new friends know the score, know about The Huascas and what they do, and know how bad it is when they stumble upon a phone with evidence that the group is led by a corrupt politician. Evil and its works are not lost on them. Yet Tigers Are Not Afraid still lets them stop and be children — they make fun of each other, play games of soccer, stage talent shows, watch violent movies — everything they struggle through is a distraction from the kid shit they really want to do. (This also gives the film much-needed moments of levity, as the cast of child actors López assembled are very funny.)
It’s very possible that all of this sounds like an awful time, something that requires a healthy amount of wherewithal to stream after work one night. Consider pushing past that. The film is like Pan’s Labyrinth — less lushly realized, but not without its alluring storybook quality. In its supernatural hauntings, there is hope in the film, hope that’s not all that different from the kind explored in Night Country’s arctic nightmare: In how the dead never leave us, and if we do not recoil from their haunting, they can lead us to some form of justice.
Tigers Are Not Afraid is available to stream on Shudder and AMC Plus, or for digital rental/purchase on Amazon and Apple.