Maria was also full of praise, earning an Academy Award nomination; Miss Bala was Mexico’s official submission for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars, but failed to make the cut. It feels like an inferior duplicate — not vastly inferior, but noticeably, thanks to a running time that grows as repetitive as those beauty pageants to which the title refers.
One such hopeful for Miss Baja (as it’s called within the film, despite the title) is Laura Guerrero (relative newcomer), a poor, rail-thin young woman who arrives at auditions with a newly purchased dress still in its Target bag. She and her best friend are turned away — until later, when unwanted pressure is applied — and end up at a nightclub at the wrong time: smack in the middle of a drug cartel shootout.
Laura manages to escape; her friend does not. So the next morning, when Laura goes looking for her, she asks a policeman for help — the wrong policeman, as it turns out: the corrupt kind. He delivers her right back to the criminal gang she fled from, and she, too, is taken hostage, forced to deliver drug money, run other errands and perform sexual acts in exchange for staying alive and the continued safety of those she loves.
Shooting in a near-documentary style, director/co-writer Gerardo Naranjo makes Miss Bala feel true to life, rather than present Laura’s trials as some slick, breakneck thriller. While the stakes appear just as dire, the tension just isn’t quite there.
From his camera, life in Tijuana looks miserable, depressing and void of hope; this is conveyed so strongly, it seeps through the screen, for both good and ill: good, because the film never feels false; ill, because … well, for the exact same reason. It’s so bleak, that it wears on the viewer. With a quarter shaved from its length, the picture could make more of an impression without sacrificing anything but some prolonged, protracted moments.
Through it all, however, Sigman is Laura. You never catch her acting. She’s a natural we can crown as one to watch — we just might have to keep tabs on South American cinema to do so. —Rod Lott