Once in a while I come across a film that’s a complete surprise, and that brings me to Miss Bala, a 2011 Mexican film from director Gerardo Naranjo–a film I rented on a whim and which proved to be one of the best crime films I’ve seen recently. This is the story of a 23 year-old girl, Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman) from Tijuana who wants to escape the poverty of her home town through a beauty contest to crown Miss Baja. The film shows Laura at home in a shack with her father, who sells clothes for a living and a small brother, Arturo. Laura’s father objects to her competing in the beauty contest and his objections arise from the “environment” she’ll be in. Laura, forges ahead in spite of his objections and together with her friend, Azucana, they apply and make the list of contestants. So far so good….
That night, the two girls visit the Millenium nightclub and so begins Laura’s incredible, unintended and fateful descent into the organised drug world. Becoming the pawn of the leader of La Estrella gang, and in particular the object owned by its reptilian leader, Lino (Noe Hernandez), Laura discovers that organised crime opens doors that were once slammed in her face. Trapped between Lino and DEA agents, morally compromised Laura has no escape and nowhere to turn in a country rife with corruption.
Stephanie Sigman as Laura does a fantastic job in this role. At one point, when she first signs up for the contest she’s told by its organiser not to smile so much. That comment wasn’t needed as that is the last time Laura smiles in the film. From this point on, she’s shuffled through various nefarious drug related activities that are so stunningly bold, that by the time the film ends she’s a terrified girl who’s afraid of making the slightest wrong move. What’s so interesting here is how Laura handles the brazen daytime gunfights, shootouts and executions. At one point, she’s handed a thick wad of bills by Lino and told to go buy herself a dress for the pageant. She ends up at a swanky shop where the snooty assistant condescendingly tells her that all the dresses are custom made and run around 1,000. Laura has the money, but instead of lording it over the woman (who’s asking to be brought down a peg or two), Laura, numbed by recent events, insists she has the money and carries on with the task at hand as if the slight didn’t happen. In one great scene, during the pageant, she’s asked by the host if she wants money or fame–a telling and ironic question as it turns out, and one which she cannot answer. By the film’s spectacular and surprising conclusion, we ask ourselves just how much has been contrived from the very beginning, and Laura who started with just her looks–looks good enough she thought they would take her from the poverty of Tijuana, discovers, the hard way, just where looks take her.
Miss Bala, and Bala translates as “bullet,” by the way, is an inversion of two extremely popular American film themes: 1) the underdog film in which the outsider longs for an opportunity to prove himself/herself and then who beats the odds and rises to the top, and 2) the woman-in-danger who grabs a gun and suddenly becomes some type of super female. I’m thinking Angelina Jolie here, and is it any coincidence that the star of Miss Bala, Stephanie Sigman, looks like Jolie? While Jolie’s roles seem intent on uncovering her inner Assassin/Amazon–complete with skills that frequently defy logic, Miss Bala’s Laura is the opposite. Director Gerardo Naranjo inverts the American dream–the outsider who makes it against the odds–and converts this into the Mexican nightmare. We don’t see Laura Guerrero discovering (a la Jolie) her inner assassin. Instead we see a terrified young girl who does just as she’s told as she become a wheel-woman, a mule, and an arms runner. This edge-of-your-seat thriller which terrorizes without gore shows that there’s no exit, no fantasy, no choices for someone like Laura–and her looks… well her looks just land her in trouble.