At first glance, Miss Bala's premise – about a young girl with dreams of beauty-pageant glamour who becomes unwittingly ensnared in the Mexican-American drug war – seems like an unrealistic cocktail of contrasts.
As protagonist Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman) is thrust from one dangerous smuggling situation to another, surrounded by thunderous gunfire and pools of blood, her kidnappers also act as her pageant sponsor, chauffeuring Laura to dressing rooms where she is gussied up by makeup artists, asked to cite platitudes about world peace, and literally put in the spotlight only moments after escaping death. As absurd as that sounds, Miss Bala is actually based loosely on the real-life story of Mexican beauty queen Laura Zúñiga, who was involved in a drug trafficking scandal in 2008.
The film begins innocently as Guerrero and girlfriend Suzu apply to be contestants in the Miss Baja California beauty pageant. Later that night at a club, Laura is separated from her friend when the club is attacked by a gang whose members decide to keep her alive, thinking she'll prove useful as a covert trafficker.
Trapped, Laura complies in order to keep her family safe. The gang ensures Laura wins the beauty pageant, which kingpin Lino uses to his advantage, forcing Laura to be the bait for high-ranking legal officials he wants dead. It's a trope for drug traffickers to be opportunistic, using whomever and whatever to do business and stay alive.
Adding Miss Baja to the picture (and making Miss Bala into a picture; bala is Spanish for bullet) complicates Naranjo's theme of human pawns, because it adds a feminist touch. It's not Laura that Lino wants, but her body. As a sex toy, as a slim waist taped with money taken across borders, or as a pretty face innocuous enough to pass checkpoints, Laura's body is the perfect shield, bait, messenger – essentially nothing more than a tool in the drug war.
That she is a beauty queen promoting peace and understanding in Mexico is fittingly ironic. Naranjo makes intriguing thematic connections between drug trafficking and Laura's world of beauty pageantry, with its demoralizing, body-obsessed culture that also treats women as objects. Laura is the perfect vehicle to transport drugs, money and corpses – people would never suspect that she is doing these things.
This contrast between glitz and grit serves as food for thought, but unfortunately the film fails to link such lofty ideas to its clear desire for social realism. Laura's ordeal is nothing short of tragic, but rarely is the viewer invited to empathize with her (or anyone else). Sigman's performance has been described as captivatingly realistic, but her terror is a one-note recital, and it's difficult to get inside her experience when the Naranjo films most of her most traumatic moments from behind her back. Naranjo's camera pans across gang-fight set pieces, where people are heard more frequently than seen, diluting the impact of the violence and providing only a specious impression of its effects on Laura.
Perhaps these techniques are meant to portray Laura as an unknowable cipher involved in a corrupt situation much larger than herself. But to fully grasp the devastating effects of the Mexican-American drug war, the audience needs a hint of humanism, and that's where Miss Bala falls short. Its closing titles, which outline the number of casualties from the drug war, provide more illuminating context than the film itself.
Special to The Globe and Mail
- Directed by Gerardo Naranjo
- Written by Gerardo Naranjo, Mauricio Katz
- Starring Stephanie Sigman, Noe Hernandez, Irene Azuela
- Classification: 14A
- 2 stars