Review: “Miss Bala” a Good Story That Lacks Focus

"Miss Bala" is a (mostly) hard-charging condemnation of the narco-violence that plagues Mexico, and the way in which that culture renders women as little more than objects to be used by men for sexual gratification, profit or both. Unfortunately, the film suffers from serious art-house pretentions that too often slow things down.

"Miss Bala" stars Stephanie Sigman as Laura Guerrero, a young woman in Baja who helps support her father and brother by taking in laundry. Against her father's wishes, she and her best friend Suzu head into town to register for the Miss Baja contest and a chance to compete in the Miss Mexico pageant.

Laura and Suzu later head to a disco frequented by DEA agents, where a gang of drug dealers storm in and kill everyone in sight—except Laura, whom they take hostage and put to work. The terrified woman takes on more and more responsibility with higher and higher stakes, until they discard her like the spent shell she is, dumping her essentially where they found her. The film is loosely based on the true story of Laura Zúñiga, a beauty pageant contestant whose was caught by Mexican police in 2008 in a car loaded with cash, guns and cellphones.

Sigman makes an amazing transformation over the course of the film, from downtrodden working-class girl into a stunning beauty--think of the range of physicailty that Jessica Chastain has displayed from "Take Shelter" to "The Help." The change is perfectly gradual and deliberate—you don’t even see it happening. And Sigman's emotional arc is just as deftly executed. One minute she's carefree, the next she's fearful and then she's defiant.

The story at the heart of "Miss Bala," which director Gerardo Naranjo co-wrote with Mauricio Katz, is an angry condemnation of Mexico's drug war, but it strangely lays very little of the blame at the feet of the U.S. government, who play a large part in it. More frustrating still is that fact that Gerardo is consumed with making something more than a smart action film with a point. He points his camera away from the action, lingers on static moments and unspools in real time the most mundane of tasks. The influence of film gods like Godard, Woo, Antonio and more are all over this film, often grinding the otherwise riveting story to a painful standstill.

Sigman's performance and Naranjo's story make "Miss Bala" worth the viewing. Almost as much fun will be when news of the remake breaks and your snobby friends decry Hollywood's cultural imperialism, and you can tell them to get over themselves.

"Miss Bala" opens in limited release Friday, January 20th

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