In ‘Miss Bala,’ terror of drug-war abduction comes to life

YOU WANT to use the word "surreal" to describe the teen girl's night-from-hell drama "Miss Bala," but this slice of life on the Mexican border is all too real.

The annual death total from that country's drug war surpassed 12,000 people last year, an international disgrace that gets confoundingly little coverage in the media, mainstream or otherwise.

"Miss Bala" puts you at ground zero, Tijuana, where pageant hopeful Laura (Stephanie Sigmund) and her friend decide to enter a beauty contest. They attend the tryout, then hit the after-party.

There, the girls mingle with Mexican police and DEA agents until the place is invaded by a drug gang looking for law enforcement scalps.

Laura ends up a hostage to the drug kingpin (Noe Hernandez), and is ping-ponged back and forth between criminal gangs, cops, crooked cops (these last two being indistinguishable), DEA men, provincial/government military leaders - and the televised pageant!

There are times when neither we nor Laura has any idea what's going on, and that's the point. The drug cartels (and the demand for their product) have turned portions of Mexico into bloody anarchy.

The built-in obstacle to this frenzied narrative is that while the subject and the spectacle engage you, the characters do not. They never deepen - they're part of the arm's length blur of events that the director Gerardo Naranjo arranges.

In terms of style, Naranjo does something interesting here. Directors have been searching for years for an alternative to the stale, cliched, shaky-cam "verite" techniques meant to suggest reality.

Naranjo comes up with a crazy-quilt of steady, anchored single takes and off-kilter compositions that do the job brilliantly. This feels new and convincing.

The actions shots - given the fixed-position camera placement - have to be elaborately staged. Some of the blocking here for complex vehicle-borne gun battles is almost unbelievable.

So, you might think, is the story. But "Miss Bala" (bala is the Spanish word for bullet, used as a pun for "baja") is loosely based on fact.

And you feel the movie's authenticity, throughout the ordeal that leaves Laura brutalized, terrified, confused, abandoned, with nowhere to turn. Mexicans know the feeling.

Miss Bala

Directed by Gerardo Naranjo. With Leonor Victorica, Stephanie Sigman, Noe Hernandez, Lakshmi Picazo, Irene Azuela. Distributed by Fox International.

Running time: 1 hours, 53 minutes.

Parent's guide: R (for language, some brutal violence and sexuality).