This week in movies you missed: A young woman must endure sparkly dresses, televised interviews and senseless carnage to keep her loved ones from harm. No, The Hunger Games is next week. This movie takes place in present-day Mexico.
What You Missed
Laura (Stephanie Sigman) is 23, lives in Tijuana and wants to be crowned Miss Baja California. (When asked why, she replies simply, "They give her money.") But when she follows her friend from the pageant auditions to a nightclub, things go very wrong.
Armed men — cartel members targeting a DEA agent — pour in and open fire. Laura escapes, but her search for her friend takes her to a cop, who takes her straight back to her original attackers. From there, things just get nastier, as crime kingpin Lino (Noe Hernandez) decides to take a personal interest in Laura and her beauty queen aspirations.
"Bala" means bullet. Believe it or not, this story was loosely based on a real incident involving the arrest of a Mexican beauty queen.
Why You Missed It
The closest Miss Bala played was Boston, to my knowledge.
Should You Keep Missing It?
No. A plot description doesn't really do justice to Miss Bala. Though it does depict brutal violence against women (be prepared), this isn't an exploitation flick. It reminded me more than anything of the Romanian film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days; both are superlatively crafted real-life horror stories that put us in the POV of a woman struggling to survive an ordeal by her wits and determination alone.
Director Gerardo Naranjo, who got a lot of attention with this film (it screened at Cannes), likes to use long takes. Watching art movies, I've learned something about long takes: They are horrendously boring when nothing is happening, and incredibly exciting when something is happening. An action scene shot in several long takes, like the nightclub scene here, feels far more real and harrowing than a bunch of chopped-up random-looking stuff. Maybe that's just because we're so used to the Michael Bay method of hashing action scenes into split-second shots. It was fun, but now it's done.
More importantly, Naranjo controls what is in those takes. Sometimes he traps us in Laura's perspective, or forces us to stare at her terrified face while something bad happens off-screen. Sometimes he puts us in a superior position, seeing things in the background that characters in the foreground can't see. Miss Bala plays with perspective as much as any horror film. (It might be interesting to compare/contrast with Silent House on those grounds.)
Sometimes I had trouble keeping up with the plot twists, but then, so does Laura, who's only now learning to tell the good guys (if there are any) from the bad guys. Imagine a mob drama told not from the POV of the guys with guns but from that of the bystander caught in the crossfire. No one wants to be in that position, but Naranjo seems to have a point to make — that ordinary Mexicans are already there. (At the end, we're told that the drug wars took 36,000 lives in Mexico between 2006 and 2011.) Not for nothing does Laura aspire to represent her country; in the film, she already does.
While we never learn that much about Laura, Sigman's raw performance makes her impossible not to care about. After I finished the movie, I went back to the beginning to rewatch an early scene. Seeing Laura smiling, flippant and happy hit me on a visceral level — it was a shock to remember she'd ever not been running for her life.
I mentioned The Hunger Games for fun, but I couldn't help noticing that Laura could be a best-selling YA heroine if only (a) she lived in a postapocalyptic dystopia instead of a third-world nation; and (b) she kicked ass. Right now bookstores are full of teenage girls who are victimized, oppressed or exploited — not in real settings, but in dystopias like the one in Collins' novels, or the even creepier polygamous world of these books.
Maybe these books are a safe way of dealing with fears about where the U.S. is headed right now (to rigid social stratification and/or total breakdown, depending on the author), or maybe teens are just prone to paranoid fantasizing. But the irony is that you don't have to visit a dystopia to see girls (or people in general) being treated like cannon fodder or commodities. Miss Bala reminds us of that.
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