With the cartels tightening their grip on Mexican border towns, it doesn’t take a cryptographer to read the message of a thriller like Gerardo Naranjo’s Miss Bala, which expresses solidarity with the ordinary, innocent citizens who get caught in the crossfire. It’s how Naranjo expresses it that matters: Shot in long, dynamic takes, often from unconventional vantage points, the film moves at a relentless pace, following a heroine who’s been forced into a dangerous situation with very little room to maneuver. Broadly, she’s a figurehead, standing in for a country held hostage by an overwhelming, nefarious force. Yet Miss Bala doesn’t show much interest in sloganeering, choosing instead to attach its metaphor to one woman’s harrowing odyssey as she ping-pongs between vicious cartel bosses and corrupt officials while simply trying to stay alive.
Naïve and vulnerable, yet tougher than she appears, Stephanie Sigman is a teenager from a humble Tijuana neighborhood who dreams of becoming the next Miss Baja California. She and her best friend head into the city to try out for the pageant, but later that evening, they end up in the wrong place at the wrong time. In the film’s most exciting setpiece, Sigman witnesses an audacious nightclub ambush by a drug gang that leaves three people dead and her friend missing. When she goes to the police to inquire about her friend, a corrupt cop delivers Sigman to the gang’s pitiless leader (Noe Hernandez), who enlists her as an unwilling driver, gunrunner, and human shield. And the pageant does, of course, come back into play, just not how Sigman might have imagined.
Miss Bala toes a delicate line between exploitation movie and movie about exploitation, but that’s part of what gives the film its charge—this isn’t some flaccid docudrama about how the cartels are poisoning the country, it’s a lively, white-knuckle thriller where any such proselytizing is reduced to implication. From the start, Sigman’s options are limited, but while her victimization is disturbing, she isn’t passive about it—she works desperately to wriggle free from the role the gang has forced her to play. She’s a metaphoric stand-in for Mexico, but for the whole of Miss Bala, she’s a flesh-and-blood heroine who stands in for us all.