The world of Mexican drug cartels has almost become a movie genre all its own. Miss Bala, which debuted this week at the New York Film Festival and is Mexico’s official entry for Best Foreign Film at the upcoming Oscars, manages to differentiate itself solely through filmmaker Gerardo Naranjo’s imaginative direction. What’s unclear, however, is whether this is an “issue” film or a thriller, the ambiguity of which lessens the blow of its otherwise intense premise.
Inspired by a true story, Miss Bala follows Laura Guerrero, a young beauty pageant contestant with her sights set squarely on the crown. Sadly, after qualifying to enter the competition, Laura gets kidnapped by The Star, a drug cartel that targets political figures fighting the drug underworld.
Reminiscent of Catalina Sandino Moreno‘s breakout performance as a drug mule in Maria Full of Grace, Stephanie Sigman‘s Laura finds herself fighting for her life because of her desire for a brighter future. While Sigman falls just short of captivating her audience—her one-note mix of fear and pride starts to feel wooden early on—it’s no fault of Naranjo’s, who brilliantly directs every scene, whether his camera is focused on Laura’s white dress shining in the middle of the dark desert, or the sparkle of her crown placed on her beautifully ravaged head. He also earns bonus points for refraining from the melodramatic closeups characteristic of the genre—er, genres.