Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman) is a good Tijuana girl who helps her father sell secondhand clothes and makes sure her little brother gets off to school. She is tall, she is pretty, and one day she decides to join the line for the big Miss Baja beauty pageant tryouts.
By the end of Gerardo Naranjo's taut, terrifying Miss Bala, the innocent Laura has been crowned pageant queen - and has been abducted, raped, forced to smuggle stacks of money across the border and shot at more times than a firing-range dummy.
A masterfully photographed and edited look at the carnage and chaos of the Mexican drug wars, Miss Bala is a crime thriller that pivots around this shell-shocked victim. In that way, the film - Mexico's official entry for the Academy Awards' foreign-language category - is similar to 2004's Columbia drug-running drama, Maria Full of Grace.
There are no good guys in Miss Bala, just bad guys of different stripes. Rival gangs, corrupt cops, even a Mexican general - everyone is culpable. Laura enters into this hellish world via Lino (a chillingly calm Noe Hernandez), a gang king who stages a brazen attack on U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration operatives and their Mexican counterparts at a dance party attended by Laura and her best friend.
Miss Bala is full of virtuoso single-take tracking shots and over-the-shoulder perspectives that effectively convey a sense of menace and momentum. There are broad-daylight gun battles, grim surfside executions, haywire car chases, and casual killings. Laura, understandably, is numb with trauma - but she is also not the smartest woman on the block. Her aimlessness and bad instincts make matters worse. But they also serve as metaphor: Naranjo uses his heroine as a symbolic stand-in for Mexico's citizens, blameless bystanders caught in the cross fire of a billion-dollar range war.