By Brian Hall
The film “Miss Bala” aims to shine an honest, unfiltered light on the drug trafficking epidemic plaguing the country and citizens of Mexico. Co-Writer/Director Gerardo Naranjo intentionally forgoes familiar, flashy drug kingpin-type caricatures and gratuitous gunfights in exchange for a grim and grounded story in this, Mexico’s official entry for Best Foreign Language Film for this year’s Academy Awards.
Stephanie Sigman plays Laura, a young woman living in poverty, looking to compete in the local Miss Bala beauty pageant. After surviving a violent encounter with a gang of drug lords, led by gang leader Lino (Noe Hernandez), Laura sets off to find her now missing friend. Her pursuit unfortunately leads her right back to Lino, who brings her unwillingly into a world of drugs, weapons smuggling and corrupt officials. Most surprising is that Lino’s interests also include Laura’s continued participation in the Miss Bala competition.
The film is heavy stuff. As Laura is dragged to money drops, and shoved through shootouts and pageant ceremonies, there are no real moments of relief. After a while it becomes a bit cumbersome to see Laura continually reduced to being no more than an instrument, used by whomever she has the displeasure of currently being around. But sadly, that would be the point of this story – Mexico’s drug wars are a destructive and consuming force, claiming whoever lies in its path.
What’s particularly interesting about the film is the subtle but expertly realized storytelling approach. Unlike most films, the story isn’t presented to us so much as it is something we, as viewers, are essentially dragged through. Naranjo begins the film with several shots directly behind Laura’s head, forcing us to view the world from her perspective.
Once she is eventually in view however, we are still always noticeably close to her – as if we are an unseen character attached at her hip. Even further, when Laura refuses to look someone in the eyes, we also aren’t given a glimpse at the person’s gaze. This approach amazingly never calls attention to itself and inevitably forces us to be no further ahead of the story than Laura is. We only ever know what she knows and learn new information as she does. It’s the cinematic equivalent of grabbing the sleeve of the person in front of you at a Haunted House and being pulled through.
Naranjo’s unwavering show-don’t-tell method makes the experience of “Miss Bala” less about the mechanics of the plot, and more about taking a stroll through a sad, violent and unfair journey with our hero, Laura. As a result, some lingering scenes and occasional ambiguity may test some viewers’ patience, but when the film works, it works well. It avoids being an overly obvious message film and simply strives to show us passing glimpses at something Naranjo wants us to see.
“Miss Bala” opens in N.Y. and L.A. on Jan. 20.