Belle of the Bala
Published on January 19th, 2012 | by Daniel Guzmán0
“Miss Bala” opens on January 20 at the Angelika Film Center.
Running time: 113 minutes; in Spanish w/English subtitles.
Gerardo Naranjo, the director and co-writer of “Miss Bala,” presents a powerful thriller that is equal parts successful social commentary and frustrating artistic statement. For every inspired scene, there appears to be an overlooked opportunity for something more. The result is a fantastic story that never truly lets you inside the minds of the characters, enamored as it is with the superficial siren call of the very same beauty and violence peddlers it attempts to demonize.
Stephanie Sigman plays Laura Guerrero, a hard-working Mexican teenager looking to win the title of Miss Bala. She’s not as well-off as the other pageant wannabes; Laura’s days are spent selling clothing to help support her father and younger brother. She hopes that auditioning will be the start of a new life for all of them. She’s right, but sadly not in the way that she had hoped.
Against her better judgment, Laura attends a private party hosted by people who could improve her chances of getting into the pageant. However, the club soon becomes the setting for a bloody battle between American DEA agents and a gang of drug runners looking for payback. Laura soon finds herself at the mercy of Lino (Noe Hernandez), the gang leader responsible for the massacre that left most of the club attendees dead and Laura’s close friend (and fellow pageant hopeful) missing. She makes a devil’s bargain with Lino–a chance for the crown and a promise to find her lost friend in exchange for Laura serving as an accomplice in Lino’s illegal dealings.
Naranjo shows that he has a confident eye for visuals. Whether it is pulling in the camera close to capture an actor’s slight emotional changes, or throttling the screen with a series of violent shootouts that would give Michael Mann chills, this is truly a great looking picture. Think of the sleek camerawork and color palette of Alfonso Cuarón’s “Y Tu Mamá También” with the grittiness of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Amores Perros” (two important Spanish-language films that incidentally feature Gael García Bernal, an executive producer of “Miss Bala”). There is a lovely shot in which the camera acts as an observer watching everything from a distance, eyes moving slowly from left to right to left again. However, in the course of that simple action, we see a smoking building in the distance (a result of yet another drug battle), a limo driving by with two girls celebrating in the open sun roof, a police car heading back in the direction of the fire, and finally, the tired figure of Laura walking along the side of the road, mere moments before she is taken down by a team of drug enforcement agents.
While the directing and acting are sharp, the story seems plain. With just a little more rewriting, it could have been as effective as the visuals. There are several moments when it feels as if the director wants the viewer to empathize with Laura for the choices she makes, or relate to Lino the gang leader, but then the story shifts scenes before a clear connection is established. It feels as if whole sections of character revelations were cut. Instead, we are left with meaningful gazes, or heavy moments of silence that offer up very little. For a film that is not afraid to get at the center of violent revenge schemes and beauty pageant dealings, “Miss Bala” does not reveal enough of what its characters really stand for. I can’t help but think that its fleeting attempts at character development (and the intended social message of drug runners in Mexico) seem like just a means of transport from one stylized movie-trailer-ready showpiece to another.
Now, don’t get me wrong. This movie is worth watching, in a self-flagellating “Requiem for a Dream” sort of way. Just be forewarned, it’s a frustrating experience. The rhythm of the film is all off, exiting a scene on weird beats, or trying to cash in on emotional credit a little too soon when the audience is still uncertain whether it should really give a damn. However, as unbalanced as “Miss Bala” may be, this drug smuggler movie succeeds in ultimately bringing home the goods, even if the overall experience might seem a little dissatisfying in retrospect.