If I’m being honest, one of my very favorite films that played at the Toronto Film Festival this year is something I saw in May at Cannes. At the time, I did an impromptu interview with the director of the movie, Gerardo Naranjo. At the time, I didn’t run it, so I thought this morning, I’d publish the interview for the first time, and then republish the review I wrote. Since I published it with another review, and since we weren’t doing letter grades at the time, I thought I’d take the opportunity to assign it the one it deserves now.
The thing is, there’s a limited release of this film supposedly set for October 14th, but there’s no ads for it yet, and we’re only a month out. This film needs some time to build a head of steam, and it needs the support of the critical community to convince audiences to give it a try. I hope Fox really tries with this one in the US, and that this isn’t a cursory release. Here’s my original review, and I think you’ll see just how enthused I was when I saw it. Nothing’s changed almost five months later:
“Miss Bala” comes roaring off the screen, alive and electric and shot through with an almost-overwhelming confidence. Director Gerardo Naranjo is a remarkable talent who has grafted beauty pageants with the narcotrafico wars of Mexico to create a film that is spellbinding, a visual wonder and a tremendous surprise, a piercing look at powerlessness in all its forms.
I am not familiar with Naranjo’s earlier films, but it’s obvious he lives and breathes cinema. From the opening moments of “Miss Bala,” he draws you in. Laura (Stephanie Sigman) is a young woman living in the violent border town of Baja, determined to find a way out. She sees the Miss Baja contest as a way of doing that, and despite her father’s warnings, she leaves home one morning to meet a friend and to try and make it into the pageant. In the opening scenes, Naranjo keeps Sigman’s face off-camera, not making a big deal out of it, but always keeping her just at the edge of frame or keeping her back to us, or using a door frame to block our view. It’s not until the main title comes up and her friend calls her name from off-screen that Laura turns to us, a smile lighting up her face. So much of this film is about watching that smile recede further and further as bad luck and circumstance pile up on this poor girl that in hindsight, the sunshine glimpsed in that first flash of joy is just heartbreaking.
Laura and her best friend go to a dance club after they manage to secure spots in the pageant, and while they’re there, a group of armed men take over the club, determined to kill the DEA agents celebrating inside. Laura witnesses the shooters and loses her friend in the chaos, and that combination of ill fortune leads her down a very dark rabbit hole for the rest of the movie. She wants to find her friend, and this selfless act of hers brings her right into the crosshairs of The Star, the group who attacked the club. Laura’s journey becomes a glimpse into the way the drug wars are being waged on our borders, and using her as a window into this allows Naranjo to also comment on the powerlessness of being a woman in certain cultures as well as the frustration of trying to stamp out an industry that isn’t going anywhere. Through it all, Sigman is a remarkable central figure, each new decision complicating her life further. She continues to put others ahead of herself, anything to keep her family out of harm’s way, and once she realizes how completely she’s been compromised, once she starts scrambling for her own safety, it may be too late.
As a director, you can make a choice to shoot your film in a way that is participatory or a way that is observational, and Naranjo wisely makes this a film that draws you in, that puts you in Laura’s shoes, shooting much of the film from just over her shoulder, keeping her perspective front and center. We aren’t just watching what happens to her, we’re living through it with her, and the way the film accelerates makes Naranjo feel like an old pro. He ratchets up tension expertly, and every now and then, the film erupts into pure chaos. There’s a sequence in the middle of the film that starts with Laura just driving a car through a street in Baja, turning the wrong corner, and ending up in the middle of a terrifying gun battle that just keeps cranking it up further and further, never cutting, never giving us a release or a break, and it seems to me to be an indication of just how exciting a talent Naranjo is.
He’s got a great eye, but he also elicits wonderful work from his whole cast. Sigman is one of those actors who is just eminently watchable, her huge brown eyes constantly brimming with unspoken emotion. Noe Hernandez plays Lino, the leader of The Star, and he gives this disturbing, despicable performance that avoids all the easy cliche of playing a “bad guy.” Much of the film hinges on the relationship that develops between the two of them, and there are so many subtle grace notes to their work that I can’t even fully sum up why I was impressed. It’s the little things, the details that sell the idea that these are real lives we’re watching, not something staged or calculated. As controlled as the filmmaking is, there’s still a sense of barely contained chaos pushing in at the edge of things that made “Miss Bala” one of the most tense film experiences I’ve had in a while.
And while it may not be news to you as a viewer that there is a drug war brewing on the borders of America and Mexico, I can’t think of any other film that plunges you into the dark heart of the conflict the way this one does, or that does such a great job of personalizing the toll it takes on the innocent. Although I was half kidding when I first discussed this with people, I think the film also uses the pageant setting as a way of underlining just how rotten the choices for many women are, and how this sort of institutionalized victimization is not just restricted to the mean streets. “Miss Bala” is one of the highlights of the year so far for me, a powerful experience, and Naranjo is, without a doubt, a born filmmaker.