Miss Bala, the fourth feature from Mexican New Waver Gerardo Naranjo, starts out with a young woman - we are told she is just nineteen - trying out, or at least trying to try out for a spot in the Miss Baja California pageant, which is a preliminary round of the eventual Miss Mexico crown. Whether this young woman - Laura Guerrero is her name and she is played, quite superbly by the way, by Stephanie Sigman in just her second film role - wants the glory and glamour of a beauty pageant title or whether she just wants an escape from her dead end world of abject poverty, becomes null and void once, as they say, the shit hits the fan.
After gangsters hit a nightclub where Laura is, killing many of the revelers, she becomes forcibly embroiled in the world of drug and gun trafficking. It is from here on in that Naranjo's film becomes a throbbing, beating, methodical work of harrowing fiction that is, sad to say, ripped from the tragic headlines that constitute the way of life in many Mexican border towns today. The screenplay is a more than loose adaption of a real life case of a former beauty queen who fell in with a gang of criminals. With the director's straight-forward, almost procedural, workmanlike cadence, and Ms. Sigman's equally up-to-the-task dead-eyed performance of a girl lost in an ugly world, we the viewers seem like we too are trapped in this insidious and dangerous world. Never letting up in the rigorous and relentless forward motion of the narrative - battering this violent world into our heads like an unstoppable hammer to the back of the head - Miss Bala is both shocking in its portrayal of this deadening world of killers and terrorists and corrupt officials and a cinematic wonder as well.
We are never given any more information than Laura is given in her world of cat and mouse (or more aptly cat and rat) so we the audience, unlike in other films, have no secret knowledge of what is going on or why it is happening, and therefore we the audience become part of the story and we the audience feel the pain, the suffering, the fear that is going on in Laura's own head. This is in no little part due to the performance of Ms. Sigman. The young actor - she was twenty-four at the time of filming - gives a performance that transforms her character from a bright-eyed hopeful girl into a stone-faced victim of violence that knows no recourse but to keep her eyes pressed forward and try to persevere no matter what the cost to her soul. The film, and the performance, are powerfully stoic creatures that defy genre and typical three act narrative, and in being so perhaps are not for the casual film watcher, but for those daring souls, those of a more cinephiliac beat, Miss Bala is an intense and quite harrowing journey that will surely be worth your time.