Review by Nathan Samdahl (B)
Miss Bala, the official Mexican entry to the Oscars for 2011, is a dark and terrifying look into the world of Mexico's gang wars. The story follows Laura, a young woman who is striving for a place in the Miss Baja California beauty pageant. After an evening at a shady night club turns deadly when a heavily armed gang attacks, Laura unwillingly becomes a pawn for the criminal group in order to try to locate her best friend, who was separated in the mayhem. No matter where she turns, including to the police, she discovers everyone is in the back pocket of the drug gang and there is no easy escape from her dilemma. A downward spiral of violence ensues all while the gang exerts its influence to get her back in the beauty pageant she wanted to win so badly.
Once the violence starts, Miss Bala proceeds relentlessly for nearly its entire runtime. Director Gerardo Naranjo offers very little reprieve to the audience, amplifying the oppressiveness of the gang wars in the region. Particularly toward the end, as the gang demonstrates its control over all the organizers of Miss Baja California, the film takes on an almost surreal atmosphere. The visuals remain grounded, but the situation becomes so crazy it's hard to believe the speed at which Laura's life went into the dumpster.
The action in the film is well shot and jarring. Often it feels like Laura is just thrown from one van to another and dragged through endless gun battles. Her situation seems bleak and it is. In fact her closest ally is the drug king himself who takes a liking to her, but could easily change his mind and kill her at any instant.
Stephanie Sigman is terrific as Laura Guerrero as is Noe Hernandez as the gang leader Lino. The film's focus though is not so much on the characters, but more on establishing the general violent atmosphere, which it does to incredible effect. At a certain point, Laura is almost completely removed from her own decision making - she goes and does exactly what they want.
The minimal character development is one of the few things that hold the film back. Miss Bala's pacing allows for very few moments that highlight different sides to the characters. As a result, it was hard to become fully engaged in Laura's plight, as well as some of the other characters.
Miss Bala does lack some of the polish and character work of a film like City of God, which dealt with similar themes, but it's still a strong entry and is worthy of the attention it's garnered.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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