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Miss Bala - DVD Review

Stephanie Sigman and Noe Hernandez

Review by Tim Carson

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

Miss Bala is an excellent crime thriller centred around the desperate story of Laura, a poor girl whose dream of becoming a beauty queen is thrown of track when she becomes involved with a violent drug gang.

Anchored by a superb performance from Stephanie Sigman as Laura the film manages to balance expertly-orchestrated shoot-outs with ominous tension to create an air of menace and uncertainty missing in many Hollywood thrillers. It’s impossible to see where the film is going and how it’s going to end and even then the last few scenes pack a heart-breaking and unexpected punch.

Laura’s day starts peacefully enough as she sees her father and young brother head off to work and sets out to enter the Miss Baja California beauty pageant with her friend Suzu. The night before the contest they go to a night club frequented by locals and DEA agents and get caught in the middle an attack by a drug gang. Spared by the gang Laura escapes but loses Suzu. Her hunt to find her friend lands her in the arms of the drug lord Lino (Noe Hernandez) who gradually co-opts her into his running battle with the DEA with a mixture of threats and promises to help her win the pageant.

It’s an impossible situation and Laura’s sense of powerlessness is captured beautifully by Stephanie Sigman. The film is shot from her perspective and she brilliantly portrays the sense of fear, panic and eventual numb acceptance without saying a word. It’s written all over her face and the camera spends plenty of time focusing on it.

Most of the time her silence works well but there are times in the middle of the film when you wish there was some other way to portray her sense of feeling trapped while desperately searching for a way out. Every time she tries to escapes the clutches of Lino she gets pulled back in again and the audience – like Laura – is never sure whether this time she’ll pay for her “mistakes” with her life.

This menacing undertone of the film is helped by the strong performance of Noe Hernandez as Noe. He too portrays an ambiguity that means you’re often not sure whether he genuinely likes Laura or whether he’s merely using her as a means to an end.

Around this central pairing the director Gerardo Naranjo weaves a tale of corruption, secrets and lies punctuated by outbursts of violence. It’s a depressing and frightening portrait of a country in the grip of the drug cartels where the innocent have no one to turn to, not even the police.

Overall Naranjo gets the mix of crime thriller and political commentary just about right. At times it feels a little over done and the pace drops a little too much in the middle section but it’s definitely worth seeing – the central performances, the cinematography and the shoot-outs make sure of that.

Watch the trailer:

Certificate: 15
Running time: 113mins
UK DVD Release: February 20, 2012