If you've seen one Mexican drug drama you've seen them all, right? Not if you've seen the Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal co-produced film, Miss Bala.
Using the backdrop of a tender Baja California beauty pageant, the Gerardo Naranjo-directed Miss Bala follows the nightmarish story of 23-year-old Tijuana woman Laura Guerrero, a hopeful contestant whose dreams of becoming Miss Baja are hijacked by a dangerous drug cartel led by drug lord Lino (Noe Hernandez).
Stephanie Sigman stars as Laura, whose life in just a few short moments is turned upside by a dangerous drug cartel who, after igniting a bloodbath at a local nightclub, kidnap her and force her to become their drug mule. What follows is a series of agonizing events that continue to escalate from one scene to the next like a well-oiled pressure cooker.
What's most interesting about the movie is the way that it shifts from the build up of what could possibly be a very magical rags-to-riches moment for a young woman from an impoverished family to a moment that becomes soiled with violence, gunfire, and trafficking. Sigman, who holds down the fort as the only female star in a male-saturated cast, towers over her shorter-limbed male counterparts, which for a moment makes the audience believe that she could try to get herself out of this horrific situation. But the sheer terror in her eyes and the manipulative desperation of her captors discards that possibility in a quick flash.
As the film progresses, it's hard for the audience not to get caught up in each dismaying situation Laura is thrown in. From sexual sacrifices to brutal brawls, the movie is as gritty as it gets, but doesn't forfeit taste even as it plummets down its darkest paths. Though the ideals of beauty and femininity are often peppered throughout the movie, Laura never comes across fake or disingenuous and her body isn't ever made to look lustful or objectified. Every time you look at her, you're immediately thrust into her godawful predicament, and you--like her--have become removed yourself from the flowery reality that could have been.
Sigman, in only her second full feature film, is simply magnetic on screen. She stirs an equal amount of suspense and empathy from the audience just when she needs to. She is surprisingly calm in even Laura's most dire scenes, which speaks to Laura's bravery and ability to think on her feet, but is effectively petrified at just the right times. From one scene to another she takes you on an appropriately wide range of emotions that are right in line with the film.
Except for its disappointingly tapered ending, Miss Bala (bala is the Spanish word for bullet, used here as a pun for "baja") is an impressive, anxiety-ridden crime drama that can join the ranks of some of the best in its genre, from two of Mexico's best talents. It will be wonderful to watch how Sigman's career takes shape after this movie, and what else Luna and Bernal have up their sleeves next.