Miss Bala (***)

Gerardo Naranjo’s Miss Bala does not make you realize this is a good movie until the very end, where you come to grasp that the widespread influence of Mexico’s drug trafficking and political corruption victimizes its citizens from all walks of life. Produced by Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna, the international breakthrough stars from Y Tu Mama Tambien, alongside producer Pablo Cruz, this action docu-drama from Mexico is the country’s official submission for Best Foreign Language film. While the film itself is not as powerful as the message of entrapment it seeks to promote, I found myself constantly engrossed by the unfolding of the plot. The movie begins when a young woman, Laura Guerrero, played with the perfect balance of strength and guarded fear by newcomer Stephanie Sigman, attempts to move herself up from the fringes of poverty by entering in the beauty pageant contest for Miss Baja California alongside her best friend, Suzu. The pair receive skeptical feedback from the head judge, but they are asked to come back the next day. It’s when Suzu attempts to find men who have connections that will rig the contest for the two girls that things go haywire. Following an attack at a club by a large scale drug trafficking gang, La Estrella, Laura’s world spins out of control when she is used as the constant middleman for the drug lords, the pageant organization, and even the local Mexican law enforcement as a greedy means to an end where Laura can never profit. Although slavery may be abolished, the film goes to show you that even in areas so close to our borders, average citizens are treated just that by all around them, and they have no where to run, no where to hide, and no one to trust.

At first, I felt like the film was incredibly unrealistic in certain regards, which made me have a negative impression of it for a great deal of its running time. Laura constantly seems to be lucky in spite her misfortune — she seems to avoid bullets better than most Agents from The Matrix, and everyone she encounters never really wants any harm to come to her despite them being murderous drug lords and abusive cops. I wondered what on earth is Laura’s use to everyone? Why do the drug lords want to make her a winner of a pageant so badly? Why do they seem to trust her when she is not in captivity, genuinely believing that she won’t run away? So many questions made me wonder Laura’s purpose in the film. I thought this cannot be that such an unimportant figure in society could be so important to individuals with access to millions of dollars and thousands of resources. Yet, like I mentioned, the end of the film sums all these questions up to a tee. My frustrations I felt through the entire length of the movie about why Laura seemed more invincible than a super hero were easily put to rest. Yes, it’s easy to justify Laura’s resilience due to her strong resolve and somewhat decent intelligence, but she never really acts upon anything in the film except, like I said, avoiding bullets. I rarely saw a rebellious side to her, and that is part of the reason why her character is tragic, why Mexico itself is presumed to be a tragic place to live for someone who is poor and without any type of socio-economic influence. Rebellion would gain Laura absolutely nothing except greater disparity at a faster rate. Her family’s only means of survival is cooperation with whichever powerful force of Mexico is able to control her. Laura, like the pageant title she wishes to claim, is only valuable at surface level, but beneath the surface the truth comes to fruition and her actual representation is that of a tool. She is the liaison, the device used by Mexico’s facilitators to make exchanges amongst themselves, and they can discard Laura at any time, washing their hands of any blood in the blind public’s eyes.

This pageant story is not what it seems...

If you come into the film believing Laura to be some kick-ass action hero, you have come to the wrong movie. There is nothing heroic at all about Laura. She is submissive, docile, compliant, and is often quiet, both figuratively and literally. However, Laura is certainly strong — no weak individual could put up with the endless stream of abuse, humiliation, and blatant manipulation that befalls our protagonist. A strength of this film, that at first seemed a weakness, is that the audience resumes Laura’s point of view at all times. There is maybe less than one or two scenes where Laura is not the central focus. Every dark moment she goes through, we go through as well with her, we feel her pain, and like Laura, we are completely powerless to stop it. There are so many moments where you as a viewer become frustrated with Laura’s willingness to serve everyone, that identifying with her completely is a task in itself. However, the ending of the film painfully demonstrates that the social climate Mexico finds itself in leads no way for hope to emerge. Entrapment is the burden of living in Mexico, the film seeks to persuade viewers, so long as corruption stands and the drug lords have an invisible grasp on the country.

While the film never mentions the words “deportation” or “immigration,” you cannot exit the theater without those ideas running through your mind. As we see in Laura’s brutal existence, hell would be more accommodating than what Baja California, Mexico has to offer her. Millions of poor individuals seem to be uncared for and are fatally threatened into working with the drug traffickers. With such a stronghold over their very lives, and a deep political corruption that seems to exploit rather than save, Miss Bala convinces even the greater detractors of illegal immigration into rethinking their stance. Some may call the film too heavy a beat down on it’s own country of submission, and pushing forth a liberal agenda to the extreme by establishing the most dire of plot scenarios for dramatic effect. I call it a realistic portrayal of what seems unrealistic to the average American. Miss Bala may not be a satisfying film to watch — heck, I was frustrated watching it up until the last few frames — but I assure you that you will leave the theater depressed, angry, and fervent that action must be taken to change the bleak future of the entrapped victims in Mexico.