Gerardo Naranjo may have made the least-glamorous movie ever about a pageant queen with "Miss Bala." And that's what makes it so beautiful.
With long, fluid takes that create a mesmerizing tension, the Mexican director and writer initially draws us into a world of youthful optimism, one which ends up being wildly unpredictable and increasingly desperate.
"Miss Bala" is Mexico's entry in the foreign-language film category at the Academy Awards and, sadly, it couldn't be more relevant in depicting the brutal violence plaguing Mexico's northern border areas.
At its center is the gorgeous, leggy Stephanie Sigman, a former model making her striking film debut. Naranjo doesn't let us see her face at the film's start; he shoots her from the back or the side, her dark, wavy hair obscuring her features. But when she finally turns around and flashes a smile — totally natural, with no makeup — and speaks in her playful, husky voice, she's radiant.
Sigman stars as Laura Guerrero, a young woman still living at home with her father and brother outside Tijuana who hopes to be crowned the next Miss Baja California. (The title is a play on words: "bala" means bullet in Spanish.) Her tacky, clingy dress and chipped fingernails tell us everything we need to know about the disparity between the life she lives and the one to which she aspires.
Laura goes to a club with her best friend, a fellow contestant who insists they could meet some guys with connections there who might help them win. Instead, she finds herself in the wrong place at the wrong time, as gang members shoot the place up while targeting some DEA agents who are partying there. Laura escapes briefly but she's seen too much, and ends up becoming their captive pawn.
The group's leader is the wily Lino (a subtly menacing Noe Fernandez), who's been terrorizing northern Mexico with his minions while working the angles across the United States border, as well.
Lino at first forces Laura to run a few errands; in exchange, he will (allegedly) try and find out what happened to her friend, who's been missing since the club ambush. But the tasks become more and more dangerous, and Laura's various attempts to escape prove futile. And yet, she still must take part in the pageant to maintain appearances, and the absurd juxtaposition of this glitzy, artificial realm nestled within a vicious reality provides some dark humor.
Laura is understandably shaken but, except for a few cracks, keeps her composure and does what she must to survive. Yet she never turns into a superhero, and her actions always seem plausibly instinctive. But knowing even a little bit more about her — who she truly is, what drives her — might have sucked us into her story even more, engaged us with greater emotion.
Instead, "Miss Bala" functions most effectively as an action film. Naranjo really knows how to craft and shoot meticulous, virtuoso set pieces; his quick bursts of violence seem to come out of nowhere, and sometimes develop into all-out warfare in the streets. But he also knows well enough to remain at a distance from the action, and let these sequences play out rather than relying on a lot of tired shaky-cam tactics or frantic cuts.
Naranjo remains uncompromising to the last shot: He ends the film on a vague but unmistakably downbeat note, as a young life full of promise has been shattered, and needlessly so.
"Miss Bala," a Fox International Productions release, is rated R for language, some brutal violence and sexuality. In Spanish with English subtitles. Running time: 113 minutes. Three stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.