Miss Bala

Miss Bala


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Neither writer/director Gerardo Naranjo nor his characters like to play by the rules. I'm Gonna Explode refused to sit easily in one genre - although it riffed on romance - and with Miss Bala, he rebels against genre classification altogether, wrapping his political commentary about malevolence in modern Mexico within a thriller framework that also puts a neatly bleak twist on the underdog-wins-competition cliches. The Bala of the title translates as "bullet", a perfect metaphor for a situation in which even the most innocent sounding interaction could prove deadly.

Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman) is the Mexican everywoman at the heart of the action. Scratching out a living and looking after her father and younger brother, she dreams of being crowned Miss Baha in the local beauty pageant. Naranjo's Mexico, however, is a place where dreams are made to be destroyed - even if they may also be peversely realised - and where violence is close at hand even if you are innocent. A simple night of drinking sends Laura's world spinning out of control after she finds herself in the wrong place at the wrong time, witnessing the latest set of killings in an ongoing war between cops and drug dealers. To make matters worse, the local crime lord Lino (Noe Hernandez) takes a shine to her, meaning that he would be more than happy to sexually assault her or kill her at any moment, while also being keen to keep her around as a mule.

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Although the set-up is a familiar one, this is no tale of a heroine who is a plucky and lucky action hero in waiting. Laura is firmly in the flight not fight end of the equation, utterly powerless to extricate herself from an increasingly dire situation. Naranjo's smooth - often single-take - camerawork proves gripping as the level of peril surrounding Laura escalates, with those theoretically on the 'right' side of the law, just as willing to take advantage of her as the drug-dealing thugs.

But even as the film offers thrills, it encourages us to feel bad about them, keeping us firmly on the side of Laura and fully aware that she is being offered no easy way out. Here, villains are a long way from one-note cliches, while the gun shoot-outs and action have a disturbing edge thanks both to the direction and Sigman's achingly folorn yet stoic performance as the film's focal point. She is, of course, the country and its populace personified, with everyone merely taking turns to abuse her every which way.

With the exception of one horrendous moment, violence is kept at arms length. Naranjo is at pains not to glorify it at the same time as implying it is omnipresent in today's Tijuana. In part inspired by the real-life story of a beauty queen who found herself mixed up with a drug gang, the beauty pageant storyline that weaves in and out of the action offers poignant irony. Ideas concerning the discrepancy between appearances and what lies beneath jostle for attention, as all the while the plight of Laura deteriorates.

Naranjo never lets the tension slip and finds ways to make the situation worse for his hapless heroine while still keeping the narrative firmly in the realms of fact not fantasy. Miss Bala has been nominated for that film beauty contest to end them all - the Oscars. It's definitely in with a shout.

Reviewed on: 29 Sep 2011
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An aspiring beauty queen finds herself mixed up with a drug lord.
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Director: Gerardo Naranjo

Writer: Mauricio Katz, Gerardo Naranjo

Starring: Stephanie Sigman, Irene Azuela, Miguel Couturier, Gabriel Heads, Noe Hernandez, James Russo, Jose Yenque

Year: 2011

Runtime: 113 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Mexico

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