Tuesday, August 11, 2015

MISS BALA: A new star is born


Drug cartels and beauty pageants. It sounds like the longline for Miss Congeniality 3. Instead, it is the subject matter of this Mexican thriller from 2011. I remember hearing good things about it when it was on the festival circuit. I finally managed to watch it, so here's my review.

Laura Guerrero (Sigman) is a young woman who wants to win the Miss Baja  California beauty pageant. The night before the competition, she goes to a party which is gatecrashed by a cartel hit squad. She manages to escape, but the friend she was with disappears. Desperate to find her friend, she goes to the police. Of course, the officer she talks to drops her off at the drug cartel's base. And then the movie gets DARK.

This movie is really brutal and gritty. The story veers in unexpected directions, and has a queasy immediacy that hooks you in from the beginning. There are so many twists to this plot, and so many rug-pulling moments that prevent this lo-fi effort from turning into a familiar thriller. This narrative unpredictability is matched by Gerardo Naranjo's direction. He shoots every suspense and action sequence with an on-the-run intensity that feels even more lo-fi than the faux-doc realism of the Bourne movies. It feels like a home movie -- if a home movie included homicidal drug dealers.

If I had any quibbles, it was that there were a few turns that felt a tad repetitive, and there were a few dead spots in the second act. The final few twists feel a little excessive -- almost like the filmmakers did not know how to reach the story's ending. But these are small gripes.

If there is one factor that holds Miss Bala together, it is Stephanie Sigman's naturalistic, charismatic performance as Laura. So much of the movie is dependant on her reactions, on her character's journey, that a less capable actress would have destroyed the film's sense of realism. She gives the film a humanity its other characters lack.

Overall, I would recommend the movie. It's pretty strong stuff, but if you can stand the brutality, it is worth a look -- especially for Sigman's performance.

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