It was film legend W.C. Fields who famously stated, ‘Never work with children or animals.’ Both notoriously difficult for a myriad of reasons and often unpredictable, Fields’ offhanded statement on the subject has since become a cautionary phrase embraced by many filmmakers. However, writer and director Issa López is not one of them. Rather than shying away from kids and animals due to their complexities, López dove in head first with her 2017 film, Tigers Are Not Afraid. While each of the young characters in the film are incredible and offer heartbreakingly earnest performances, it is Estrella that truly becomes the thread stitching the story together.

A genre defying film, López artfully blends fantasy, horror, drama and real-world stories together as she tells the tale about a group of orphaned Mexican street kids. After the young group’s leader Shine (Juan Ramón López) steals a cartel member’s gun and phone with incriminating evidence on it, the young band of boys find themselves in a dangerous predicament that far outweighs their years. Soon joined by Estrella (Paola Lara), their stories merge into one terrifying tale united by blood, loss, innocence and necessity. The tragic byproduct of cartel violence and illegal activity, these children in Tigers Are Not Afraid usher viewers into an all-too-real world that never gets the attention it deserves.

 

Rather than shying away from kids and animals due to their complexities, [Issa] López dove in head first with her 2017 film, Tigers Are Not Afraid.

 

When we first meet 10-year-old Estrella she is in the middle of class at school and writing a fairy tale about a prince who wanted to be a tiger. As the teacher and children discuss fairy tale elements, gunfire erupts outside. Dropping to the floor, the teacher attempts to calm her students and hands Estrella three small pieces of chalk. She tells her each piece can grant her a wish. Once the gunfire subsides, classes become cancelled and Estrella begins to walk home. As she turns a corner, a dead body openly lays on the street in a pool of blood. Turning away and walking past other kids playing with excess crime tape, a long thin line of blood trails behind her. 

By opening the film in this way we quickly learn several things about Estrella. She is educated, smart, a little bit quiet and remains relatively calm under extreme stress. When she returns home we can see her surroundings are by no means extravagant, but they are clean, safe and pleasant. As the hours tick by with no sign of her mother, she begins to worry, but keeps her cool. Not only does Estrella become established as one the main protagonists of Tigers Are Not Afraid, it is through her that we begin to see how tentative the balance of normalcy and routine can be for the residents of this Mexican town. 

 

 

Using one of the pieces of chalk to wish for her mother’s return, the film leans into its fantasy laced horror elements. Like the story of the Monkey’s Paw, Estrella gets her wish, but not in the way she expected. As the raspy, ghostly voice of her mother calls to her and reaches out displaying her decomposing flesh and plastic wrapped silhouette, it becomes clear that something terrible has happened. Understandably scared and having no adults to turn to, Estrella leaves her home and seeks out Shine and his small group of friends. Having seen him scavenging around the neighborhood and living off a nearby roof, it becomes a telling and reasonable decision for Estrella to make. 

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In a 2019 interview at TIFF with López, Guillermo Del Toro (a vocal champion of the film) said—when it comes to films—there are “those that wake people up and those that put them to sleep.” Tigers Are Not Afraid is very much a film that wakes people up. As Estrella fights to be accepted by Shine and the other orphans, her experience entering this new and unfamiliar world mirrors that of audiences around the world. Despite knowing there were children just like her struggling to survive around her, the situation takes on new urgency when it confronts her face to face. 

Never shying away from tough, but tragically plausible moments, López challenges her characters with situations no child should ever have to deal with.

 

Revealing the lack of trust and support from governmental agencies, Estrella chooses this group of fellow kids versus calling the police or another adult. While the decision to not call authorities fails to make sense in so many horror films, here there are a depressingly ample amount of reasons why Estrella’s decision makes sense. Even as the Huasca members begin to bear down on the group in startlingly aggressive ways, governmental figures not only fail, but refuse to intervene.

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Working in tandem with her choice to team up with Shine, López drops ever increasing visual hints at Estrella’s shift in character. Initially dressed in very feminine styles we see her wardrobe change along with her acceptance of her new reality. Skirts give way to pants, pinks and purples turn to neutral colors and articles of clothing take on new, practical purposes. We also see the fantasy elements surrounding her evolve and intensify. Ghosts, wishes, blood trails, sparrows, tigers and more begin to work their way into her headspace. In regards to the validity of these magical moments Del Toro also commented on them in the same 2019 interview by simply saying, “Who gives a fuck? Everything makes sense emotionally.” And you know what, he’s right.

 

 

Whether or not Estrella is actually seeing dragons fly out of violent phone videos or following mobile stuffed tigers to piles of plastic wrapped victims of violence is really irrelevant. Inevitably, these visual cues serve the same purpose. Consistently internal and reserved in demeanor, these breaks in reality allow Estrella to simply cope and move her story forward. Just as Shine clings to the story of the tiger who roams the streets afraid of nothing, and young Morro clings to the literal stuffed tiger, Estrella clings to her visualizations. Once joining Shine’s crew, these moments increase in intensity and frequency for Estrella as she continues to process her own emotional trauma while beginning to soak up that of her new friends as well. 

Partially due to her age, gender and natural disposition, Estrella quickly adopts a maternal role within the group. Becoming a calming and surrogate female presence for the younger kids, we watch as she struggles to balance her actions and fears with theirs. In a nightmare world drenched in uncertainty and callousness, developing and embracing a safe coping mechanism such as this proves to be not just a creative lark for Estrella, but a necessary one. Never shying away from tough, but tragically plausible moments, López challenges her characters with situations no child should ever have to deal with. It’s not often that children on and off screen get the respect they deserve for their ability to handle tough emotional situations, but in Tigers Are Not Afraid they most certainly do. Running from adult cartel members one second, joyfully playing soccer in an abandoned building the next, to mourning the loss of a found family member—it is here in these divergent snippets of tone that López beautifully captures the resiliency of childhood in heartbreaking fashion.

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Guillermo Del Toro [said] there are “those that wake people up and those that put them to sleep.” Tigers Are Not Afraid is very much a film that wakes people up.

Ultimately proving to be a crucial component in making these scenes work was the film’s casting. In the special features on the blu-ray release of the film, López and producers discuss the intensive process and the nearly 600 kids auditioned for the roles. Eventually settling for realistic non-actors over kids with a wealth of experience, many personal traits bleed into the characters. For Estrella, Paola Lara gave the character a potent undercurrent of realism fueled by her real world life. According to López, Lara was from a decently well-off family and therefore was a little bit of a ‘pampered princess.’ 

Standing in stark contrast to Lara is Juan Ramón López (Shine); an actual orphan who tended to bounce around from family member to family member. This discrepancy in background between Lara and her fellow castmates gave the sometimes tense dynamic between the actors an added sense of realism. Delicately monitoring, capturing and guiding these relationships in the film, López captured true lightning in a bottle. By allowing Lara’s natural personality and responses to scenes room to breathe and present themselves throughout the film, it adds an immensely powerful emotional gut-punch to her final scenes. Finally coming to terms with her mom’s fate and eliminating the man responsible, Estrella is no longer the timid, slightly privileged girl she once was. By facing her fears and bravely traversing the obstacle strewn path laid out before her, Estrella enters the next phase of her life transformed. No longer a cub, this final Estrella is a full grown and fearless young tiger.

 

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