Tigers Are Not Afraid centers on Estrella (Paola Lara), who the audience first sees in her grade school writing a fairy tale for a class assignment. Soon after, gunshots ring out and she and her classmates are forced to drop to the floor. As all the children cower, Estrella's teacher reaches out and hands her three broken pieces of chalk, telling her they represent three wishes. When Estrella leaves her school, she sees a dead body outside, and that's when a thin line of blood starts trailing her all the way back to her own home where her mother has gone missing. In her solitude, Estrella learns there is something supernatural in her orbit, but what exactly that is does not become clearly defined until the movie's last act. Terrified and alone, Estrella joins up with a group of other parentless children, lost boys led by El Shine (Juan Ramón López), squatting on a rooftop nearby.
Shine has stolen an iPhone with compromising information about a gang leader on it that makes him and his friends the target of a violent cartel, the Huascas, forcing the group of kids on the run. As Tigers Are Not Afraid progresses, the action simultaneously becomes more surreal -- a plush tiger comes to life, as do the dead -- and more upsettingly grim. Unlike some of the kid-focused adventure stories that López cited, like The Goonies, young lives are actually at risk in her work.
"It was very important to convey the feeling that nobody is really safe," she says. "At the same time that I give you hope and peace, at the end you need to walk out of the theater knowing this is happening. In a way, this is part of why children are willing to cross the border in spite of what they know what might happen on the other side. This is why parents will take their kids, leave their lives behind, and cross the border into uncertainty and now into imprisonment and unimaginable horrible situations -- because it's better than what happens there. And you need to tell their stories for the rest of the world to understand."
López shot the film in 2015 and it premiered at Fantastic Fest in 2017, but it arrives on American screens at a time when children from Mexico and other Latin American countries seeking asylum at the US border have been separated from their families and subjected to inhumane conditions. "I think that the stories that the movie is trying to tell are ever more important now than [they were] two years ago," López says.