Between 2006 and 2011, 36,000 people died in Mexico as a result of the violence surrounding drug trafficking, a business that generates $25 billion a year in Mexico alone. These are the facts given at the end of Miss Bala, but they are ones that most audience members will already have in mind as they watch the film. If we know anything about Mexico these days, in particular Tijuana, where Miss Bala is set, it’s that money and bodies circulate with ease.
Miss Bala, though, is a movie about the ongoing turmoil in Northern Mexico that keeps the details of the drug trade, of government corruption, of wheelings and dealings and deaths and dollars, at the periphery. Instead, Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman) is at the center of things. The story is loosely based on the true story of Laura Zúñiga, a beauty queen who became involved with drug gangs in 2008.
Our Laura is a pedagogy student who lives in a modest home with her father and younger brother, and who has just been accepted, along with close friend Suzu, as a contestant in the Miss Baja California beauty contest. Unfortunately, Laura and Suzu end up at the wrong party. A group of gang members (the Estrella gang, we find out later) sneak in through the bathroom window. A gun fight ensues. Suzu disappears and Laura, in desperation, goes to the police to try to find her. But of course, the cop instead takes her back to the gang as a potential witness to the events at the bar. From that point on, Laura’s life and the life of her family become tied directly to her ability to help the Estrella gang with their business.
The exact nature of that business, however, is never fully revealed. Drugs, money, and guns are all involved, yes, but Laura moves from car to car and task to task with little knowledge of what her delivery is for, who she is meeting, or how anything she does fits into a larger plan. And because director Gerardo Naranjo never lets the camera veer too far from Laura (it typically either focuses tightly on her or hovers and circles around her like a droid), we as an audience are no better off. We only learn details as they come to us from radio dispatches, conversations, and whisperings in the background. For the most part, who the players are and any specifics about their plans are left unrevealed.
Politically, Naranjo’s decision is poignant and revealing. There is an absolute refusal to romanticize or even give priority to gang life. As Naranjo has said in interviews, Miss Bala attempts to show what life is like for regular citizens – for innocent people, as Naranjo has put it – in northern Mexico. Violence surrounds them, but they are not necessarily privy to the inner logic that causes it. If you focus on the gangsters, even if you vilify them, you do not get the sense of terror that comes from the seeming randomness and chaos of such violent day to day life.
Naranjo’s tactics are less successful on a dramatic level. To say that we don’t feel for Laura is false because so much of what happens to her requires no back story or extra knowledge in order to arouse anger, empathy, and disgust. But the overall thrust of the plot suffers from offering so little to grasp on to other than the progressively deteriorating situation in which Laura finds herself. Sigman’s performance conveys the terror of Laura’s situation brilliantly, but that alone is not enough to carry the film to the highest level.
Ultimately, though, what the movie sets out to show is more important than what is lost as a result. More than once we watch Lino (Noe Hernandez), the leader of the gang, drop Laura back at the beauty contest after having put her through hellish ordeals, with the implied notion that now she can now just go on with her normal life. The violence and drugs in Miss Bala are not banal in the least, but they do reveal themselves as tragically commonplace.
A throw away line by one gang member – “If they catch you, tell them you don’t know me. I have a family to feed” – brings to light the trap at the heart of Miss Bala, where the lives of the characters and their families are at once constantly threatened and protected by the gang culture that surrounds them. We may not follow Laura’s trials with complete, unwavering interest, but what we learn by watching is no less powerful, no less impacting as a result. It’s a slice of life from a part of the world where there is regularly far too much at stake in quotidian affairs.
The DVD release of the film comes shortly after its theatrical release and is a no frills affair: No extras, just the movie.