Miss Bala (2011): Gerardo Naranjo’s Powerful Tale of Border Town and Broken Dreams

“Miss Bala,” a powerful crime-thriller, strong in plot and characterization, announces the arrival of new major directing talent from Mexico, Gerardo Naranjo.


World-premiering at the Toronto Film Fest, “Miss Bala” also played at the New York Film Fest in October, where it became an instant sensation.  An entrepreneurial distributor should release this significant film in major urban markets.

Rich in text and subtext, “Miss Bala” adds an honorable panel to growing body of literary and cinematic works about miserable, suffocating and devastating lives in border towns, some of which made by American artists, while others by foreigners.

If you thought that Gregory Nava’s “El Norte,” in 1984, and more recently, “Sin Nombre,” were strong, melodramatic border pictures, think again.  I guarantee that you’ll be vastly impressed, both emotionally touched and horrifically haunted by “Miss Bala.”

Set in Mexico’s border city of Baja, “Miss Bala,” a consistently gripping, dramatically intense feature, spans three crucial days in the life of Laura, a beautiful young girl who goes out of her way to escape her grim, poor, stifling existence.

Unlike many similar American sagas about small-towns, in “Miss Bala,” Laura’s desperate efforts go uproariously and scarily wrong.  As expected, Laura is not alone in her dreams.  Her best friend, Suzu, and numerous other girls, share the same aspirations.

The night before their audition the two girls go out to celebrate in a seedy and sleazy nightclub; it’s Suzu’s idea.  When a group of armed men invades the club, Laura hides and survives as the only living witness to a slaughter in which dozens of hapless club-goers are senselessly killed.

Separated from Suzu, Laura embarks on a desperate quest to find her friend, only to discover that the local authorities are working with the drug lords.  Indeed, they hand her to the gunmen who were responsible for the nightclub killings. The group’s leader is Leo, a sinister king pin, who becomes smitten with Laura, and decides to hold her hostage by putting her to hard work.

Leo’s influence over the beauty pageant and its outcome is just one indication of the corruption of this institution, embraced by naïve and innocent girls.  Clearly, the drug gang has not only infiltrated the region, but is also controlling every aspect of it.

Deluding herself that Lino would help her to realize her dream and locate her missing friend, Laura continues to do the gang’s bidding. But her growing revulsion over her abuse causes her to flee; miraculously, she makes her way back home.  But not for too long: Lino tracks her down, while threatening to kill her father and younger brother if she does it again.  Laura then realizes that everything meaningful in her life, family, hope for better life, friends, and freedom, has vanished.

Spoiler Alert

To protect her family, Laura agrees to serve as a mule for Lino in the trafficking of weapons. Crossing the U.S. border to meet with an American officer who trades weapons for money, she inadvertently stumbles across information concerning the criminal faction that’s pursuing Lino.  The already unstable balance of power in the region between the Mexican police and Lino’s gang is shattered.

Returning from her mission across the border, Laura is caught in a shoot-out between Mexican police and Lino’s gang, but is whisked to safety by Lino. After sharing the vital information about the rival gang, Laura is driven to the beauty pageant by Lino.

Though injured, Laura is named Miss Baja California. Laura makes another attempt to escape, but Lino tracks her down, and rapes her. As the newly crowned Miss Baja, Laura is introduced to the general of the Mexican police force, who orders her into a bedroom, where Lino’s gang is ambushed and killed. Lino, however, is left untouched because he has sold out his gang in exchange for his freedom.

End of Spoiler Alert

Naranjo’s chronicle of an ordinary young girl’s forced, horrible descent into Mexico’s criminal underworld can be interpreted realistically–as the story of one unexceptional girl—and/or metaphorically, with Laura standing in for an entire country, a whole social system caught in a senseless and endless nightmare of violence, poverty and corruption.

In a Toronto Film Fest press conference, the director has reaffirmed this conception, saying: “Miss Bala” is the story of Laura’s broken dreams, but it’s also the story of a crumbling country and the lawless underworld that’s destroying it.”