REVIEW: Gritty Miss Bala Shows Some Leg, and Also Shows Restraint

Movieline Score:

Miss Bala is a fairly straightforward story, told in a reasonably straightforward way: A young woman in Mexico longs to win a beauty pageant as a way of making life better for herself, her father and her younger brother. But before she can make it to the first round, she runs afoul of a group of gangsters who use her -- and her alluring but unassuming beauty -- as a means to their own devious ends.

Miss Bala -- which was made by the young Mexican director Gerardo Naranjo and written by Naranjo and Mauricio Katz -- is just stylish enough, a picture that doesn't let flash get in the way of its storytelling. It sometimes leads us down some all-too-familiar corridors -- if you've seen one Mexican drug cartel, you've seen 'em all. But there's always something to look for in the face of Stephanie Sigman as Laura Gerrerro, the young woman who one afternoon sneaks away from her family's modest home, a stretchy "competition" dress stashed away in the plastic bag she's carrying, in the hopes of making it past the first cut in the Miss Baja California pageant.

Laura has a partner in this relatively innocent crime, her best friend Suzu. After the two earn the OK from the pageant's organizer to return the next day, Suzu coaxes Laura out to a nightclub to celebrate. It turns out the club is filled with American DEA agents, the target of a bunch of masked baddies who storm the place. Laura survives the ambush, but she loses track of Suzu, and when she sets out to locate her friend, the thugs -- led by a wily, perversely seductive fox named Lino (Noe Hernandez) -- recognize her and press her into service in their war against those meddlesome law-enforcement officials.

Laura, leggy and doe-eyed, tries to elude her new friends, but they keep finding her, enlisting her for one dangerous errand after another. Lino pulls some greasy strings to make her big dream come true, but the triumph is a false one, just a necessary step in Lino's plan to snuff out a general who's been instrumental in the big drug crackdown.

Miss Bala (the title is a play on words, translating to "Miss Bullet") is inspired by real events, but even within its unflinching grittiness, there's something dreamlike -- or perhaps nightmarelike -- about it. Naranjo keeps the action tense but understated; instead of allowing explosions and shootouts to pile up, he rations them in taut doses. There's nothing particularly daring about Miss Bala beyond its restraint, although in the contemporary movie climate, that's probably daring enough by itself.

And Sigman never overplays, either: Her character is an innocent caught in a web of cruelty and greed, and she behaves instinctively and sometimes irrationally. Laura keeps scrambling away from her sweaty, stubbly, scarred captors, but you can see she never gives a thought to where she might possibly run to -- the creeps always have a way of reeling her back in. Still, Sigman doesn't play Laura as a shrinking naif. There's vitality and selfless valor in the way Laura lets her fear -- not just for herself, but for her family -- motivate her. Sigman's enormous eyes have the capacity to take in the horrors that surround her character; she can't help but see them. Yet Sigman doesn't play Laura as a character undone by lost innocence. There's a mournful undercurrent to Miss Bala; it isn't exactly a movie where good triumphs over evil. But somehow Laura -- after being abused and misused -- keeps picking herself up and walking forward. Single-minded and purposeful, she won't stop competing in her own internal pageant, even though she knows that damned crown is hard-won.