A distressing, yet thoughtful action yarn set in Baja/Tijuana has elements of films like The Promise (from Belgium), Sin Nombre, Traffic, and Michael Mann's Heat and may catch the eye of TV producers looking for new opportunities to boost their ratings.
Miss Bala is directed with verve and viscosity by Mexican Gerardo Naranjo (a graduate of the A.F.I.), and strong feeling for border violence, alternating between calm and explosiveness around the character played by model-turned-actress Stephanie Sigman.
Sigman's leggy Laura Guerrero (whose face isn't seen initially) turns out to be an unwilling participant in Northern Mexico's escalating gang drug war (with U.S. D.E.A. agents) and corruption.
At the outset the young woman is glimpsed for her drive at the Miss Baja beauty contest to give her, as well as her meek younger brother and father a better lease on life.
Celebrating her prospects for success in the pageant, the story (cunningly co-written by Naranjo) pivots on Laura witnessing bloody mayhem at a nightclub and losing her best friend Suzu (Lakshmi Picazo) in the process. In her search, she comes across a local syndicate head Lino, ominously understated Nino Hernandez, who happened to wreak havoc at the sleazy establishment.
A tale spare, yet crucial in its conversations and often in some scene segue-ways proves to be ideal for a tyro thespian like Sigman, whose Laura is destined to be crowned at the behest (a kind of everywoman) of brutal rivalries and law enforcing malfeasance.
Naranjo works effectively with his production crew, notably lenser Matyas Erdely, that has much happening just out-of-frame with a somewhat oblivious Laura staying center stage, imbuing a nuanced documentary realism (including news flashes) throughout, including a caustic flair to the beauty contest itself.
Miss Bala (perhaps through some combination of its title) oddly enough gets its name as 'Miss Bullet' though Laura is far less of an empowered protagonist, while revealing through Sigman's Alice-esque way through a complex, erupting rabbit hole. Because of her commitment to an impassive, yet shaken linchpin around drug runners and sonorous shoot-outs, the experience becomes affecting in its dark truths the kind of which have caused more than its share of heartbreak to many Mexicans.