Set in the small Mexican border town of Baja (the title a play on Miss Bala/Baja which translates as “Miss Bullet”), Stephanie Sigman plays Laura Guerrero , a young woman who dreams of winning the local beauty pageant in order to support her father and younger brother.
The night before the contest, she visits a shady nightclub with her best friend Suzu and ends up witnessing a bloody shootout. She loses Suzu in the chaos and begs a police officer to help her only to be driven straight to the local crime boss Lino (Noe Hernandez). Lino is quick to use her as an accessory to his crimes and Laura has no choice but to be dragged in an escalating series of criminal activities.
Director Gerado Naranjo ensures that Miss Bala is taut and perpetually tense due to some clever camerawork. The perspective always sticks close to Laura, ensuring that every scene is immediate and personal giving a sense that we’re riding along with her. And because she’s not an action heroine (this is not a movie where an ordinary citizen discovers a previously unheralded ability to kick ass), there’s a constant sense of peril. This is particularly effective in the film’s numerous fire-fights as Laura hysterically dives for cover amongst shattered glass and twisted metal, the action unfolding around her.
The heart and soul of Miss Bala is Stephanie SIgman, who plays Laura with believable authenticity, her saucer-sized eyes taking in every detail. She’s no Lara Croft, but neither is she a shrinking violet. The ways in which she reacts are completely plausible – scrabbling away on her hands and knees at every opportunity, desperately looking for ways out but always drawn back by her captors’ threats against her and her family.
And yet as the film progresses, she gets more and more detached from the acts she’s forced to commit. This is reinforced by Naranjo’s use of long fluid takes which cause even gun battles to become dreamlike, Laura almost floating through unfathomable horrors in a hypnotised torpor. It’s a sharp contrast to a great deal of modern mainstream filmmaking which emphasises quick cuts and jumpy camerawork to convey frenetic action; Naranjo instead has the confidence to film chaos from the personal perspectives of those involved and it’s all the more engaging for that.
Miss Bala is an amalgamation of true life stories – one in which a DEA agent was brutally murdered and another where a beauty queen was co-opted by a gang. Laura is clearly intended as a metaphor for the Mexican people: she lives in a world where law has no power, where those who do have power are corrupt and snatches of control are grabbed by force of arms and shady double-dealing.
But it’s far from preachy – Naranjo’s film isn’t here to make a point about the war on drugs or even institutionalised corruption; these are merely backdrops against which Miss Bala unfolds. And like Laura we can only sit and watch helpless and entranced.