Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman) dreams of winning a beauty pageant. The 23-year-old is from a poor family in Tijuana and is therefore mostly unprepared for her pageant audition when it finally arrives, but she has a striking quality about her that gets her through to the next round. When her friend Suzu (who also made the cut) goes out to celebrate, Laura tags along. But she's soon caught up in a vicious drug cartel and turned into a runner for the organization.
Director: Gerardo Naranjo
Starring: Stephanie Sigman, Noe Hernandez
On the surface, the film is a warning against the escalating dangers of the Mexican drug trade and its effect on the citizens of that country. But writer/director Naranjo also seems to indicate that vanity is almost as dangerous as bullets and the cartels who wield them. Laura's goal of winning a pageant comes as an ironically bitter victory near the end of the film considering the horrors she experiences on her way there, and the movie poses an interesting question: is it better to be objectified/glorified by society as a whole, or by a single individual? The bleak tone, saturating the film all the way to the ending, suggests neither option comes with a pleasing outcome. Laura's encounters with the threatening leader of the gang (Hernandez) are unnerving, hearkening back to another movie this year that deals with similar psychology, Martha Marcy May Marlene.
The acting is impressive from everyone involved, but Miss Bala is a primarily showcase for lead actress Stephanie Sigman. This is a Noomi Rapace/Dragon Tattoo level performance, and it's easy to see the potential for Sigman to follow in Rapace's footsteps with that same crossover potential into bigger Hollywood features. Noe Hernandez is menacing and terrifying in his silences, providing a clear villain in a story that's sometimes hard to follow. A lot happens in this film, but it's still a slower moving picture than most of the major releases I've seen this year; Naranjo builds tension with shot selection, relying on a ton of following shots in which the camera lurks around corners, following Laura and adding a creepy voyeuristic element throughout.
Ultimately, Miss Bala couldn't sustain my interest because Laura's actions ceased making sense to me. At a certain major event in the film (it takes place in a truck, for those of you who may have seen it), the movie completely lost me regarding her motivation, and I disconnected so dramatically that there was nothing the movie could have done to pull me back in. I know the film is critically acclaimed, but I don't care - a few well-executed shootouts and extended long takes are not the only elements needed for a successful movie. Here's hoping the rest of the 2011 AFI Film Festival has a bit more to offer. Until next time...