An action-packed tale about the Mexican drug trade, “Miss Bala’’ is a gritty account of the effect of daily violence on one young woman. Despite the grim subject matter, the film is more lurid thriller with art-house flourishes than a documentary-style approach.
Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman) is a 23-year-old living with her father and little brother in Tijuana and selling clothes for a living. The film opens with a routine day, as Laura and her friend Suzu (Lakshmi Picazo) attempt to enter the Miss Baja beauty contest. Later that day, Laura is scouring a nightclub looking for Suzu. As she’s refreshing in the bathroom, the club is suddenly invaded by thugs and a hail of machine-gun fire. The gruesome, random violence is both epic and chillingly ordinary.
Laura manages to escape, but without Suzu. She seeks help finding her friend from a cab driver who, in another unlucky stroke, turns out to be connected to the cartel that shot up the nightclub. What ensues is a horrific roundelay of events as Laura becomes a pawn in the cartel’s ongoing war with both Mexican police and the US Drug Enforcement Administration. The cartel’s leader, Lino Valdez (Noe Hernández), makes a deal with Laura to get her into the Miss Baja pageant in exchange for her help. She drives an ammo-filled car and later delivers packs of cash that Lino tapes to her body, the same body that just a day earlier she’d hoped would earn her a title and a crown. The black humor is subtle; “Miss Bala’’ would be absurdist if it weren’t so realistic: In 2008, a Mexican beauty queen named Laura Zúñiga was busted for guns and drugs, a story that director/co-writer Gerardo Naranjo uses as a jumping-off point.
In Naranjo’s depiction of the mundane atrocities of the drug war, such as brutal shootouts in broad daylight, Laura is often photographed from behind, so we see her outsider point of view. Or is she a faceless spectator to the banality of evil? Despite her resilience in the face of violence, Laura doesn’t seem a fleshed-out character. Her motivations beyond staying alive, unlike those of the similar drug-cartel victim in “Maria Full of Grace,’’ are not clear. She is more of a stand-in for the faceless innocents who are corrupted in one way or another by pervasive drug crime in Mexico.
There’s an intimacy to the violence that makes it more unsettling. When Lino commands Laura to strip to her underwear, it isn’t for sex, as we might expect. He wants to tape the cash to her waist. Later, there is sex, shot through the window of Lino’s truck. “Miss Bala’’ signals the rise of a director to watch, as Naranjo offers a grim subject with neither flash nor sentiment. It is a sober film done with style.