Adopting the frantic, hand-held documentary style of other gritty, foreign kitchen-sink offerings, Mexican writer-director Gerardo Naranjo’s explosive look at the dominant drugs culture in his country through the eyes of a young woman, Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman), is a sure-fire festival contender worthy of a look.
Laura dreams of being the next Miss Mexico and following a lucrative beauty contest lifestyle that will rescue her and her family from poverty. However, after agreeing to meet her best friend one day at a private party that is besieged by the local organised crime baron and his men, Laura is pressurized into doing the gang’s dirty and violent work to continue the flow of drugs, while masquerading as a beauty queen.
The title means ‘Miss Bullet’ in Spanish, which aptly captures the violent and dangerous lifestyle a lot of Mexicans live under. It also suggests Laura is a human weapon, used and abused by the various groups holding power in the film against one another. As we follow Laura around, Naranjo creates a real sense of lack of control on the main protagonist’s behalf that begins when her life turns upside down after being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Stephanie Sigman is a fascinating find on Naranjo’s part, exuding a captivating femininity, an inner strength and an intoxicating will to survive over adversity that shines through at every available moment throughout when Laura appears to be regaining control. This fascinating character renewal is forever displaced by the next situation she finds herself in, keeping the plot interesting and alive – even if the drugs war context is a clichéd one seen in many films before, including international hits like Traffic. What is unique and renders events farcical is the juxtaposition of two worlds of glamour; the pageant and the criminal gang, both thrilling and equally cutthroat in different ways.
That said there are some difficult and questionable scenes that punctuate the storyline, and others left needing further explanation. But Naranjo reigns in the abuse portrayals enough to give a sense of entrapment and horror, but without over-exploiting his female lead, so that we can retain our empathy with Laura’s compromised position until the very end.
In fact the end scene speaks volumes, highlighting the futility of existence for many in a country plagued by drugs, where average folk are often expendable in the authorities-verses-gangs war. Rather than anger, this invokes a curious, post-viewing sense of numbness, after the exhilarating, real-life-like, in-the-action scenes of flying bullets.
Naranjo’s tense, taunt and turbulent tale shrouded in beauty has a compellingly dangerous edge. Miss Bala not only rightfully captured global film festival attention, thanks to Sigman’s energising lead and Naranjo’s dynamic direction, but also has universal themes and gusto to transcend into international, commercial box-office success.
**WATCH THE TRAILER HERE**