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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Miss Bala (review)

Stephanie Sigman in Miss Bala

It is certainly true that in much of the world and in many circumstances, women are powerless, helpless to control the situations they find themselves enmeshed in at the behest of men. It is true that women are very often pawns in the games of men. But there is a whole lotta frustration to be found in a movie about such a woman forced to play men’s games who doesn’t fight back… not even a little. I would like to believe that up-and-coming Mexican director Gerardo Naranjo (who cowrote Miss Bala’s script with Mauricio Katz) is making some sort of feminist statement in his tale of Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman, who embodies a palpable power in spite of the film she finds herself in), a poor but pretty young woman from Tijuana who dreams of a beauty pageant win to lift her out of her poverty and desperation. From the get-go, however, even her attempts to enter the Miss Baja California contest are thwarted by the rampages of drug lord Lino Valdez (Noe Hernandez), who then co-opts her beauty-queen dreams for his own nefarious purposes. There is a certain power in the ominous feeling the film creates in how, it seems, there’s no way that Laura — or anyone else, up to and including a DEA agent (Jose Yenque) — can play Lino’s game and win, and no way that anyone Lino picks can not play. But there are also moments in which I expected Laura to take a small slice of her destiny into her own hands that failed to come to fruition: there’s one scene in which a gun is so tantalyzingly within her reach, and she fails to take advantage of it; another thing I thought would turn into a subplot about her taking subtle revenge on Lino, by not passing on word of a traitor in his midst, never materializes. Instead, Miss Bala seems to indicate that yup, Laura really is helpless, a complete and utter victim despite her initial spunk. I hate finding myself wondering if Naranjo hopes we’ll find Lino less than entirely evil because he doesn’t rape Laura at the first opportunity he has, and instead waits for a more “romantic” moment. Women’s absolute debasement may be a reality in the world, but it hardly sits well with the kind of film it appears Miss Bala wants to be: one that demands a bit of backbone from its protagonist, instead of a simple lack of objection to being a punching bag.


US/Canada release date: Jan 20 2012 | UK release date: Oct 28 2011

Flick Filosopher Real Rating: rated DID-NR for damsel in distress, no rescue
MPAA: rated R for language, some brutal violence and sexuality
BBFC: rated 15 (contains strong language, sex and violence)

viewed at home on a small screen

official site | IMDb
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine
  • JOSE LUIS

    Wow, very stupid review, so you didn’t like it because you didn’t see what you wanted to see, you are used to heroes and happy endings, where even women without any training can save themselves just by being brave, disregarding the reality of the situation where no one without military training could have a minimum chance of escaping.

  • Hilarious! Yes, I am so used to movies in which women aren’t victims. We’re positively drowning in them here in Hollywoodland.

  • craigstealsheep

    The problem is that Laura had no agency. She never had a choice in any of this. While yes, that does happen in kidnappings and probably something like that happened to the woman this story is based on (it’s not clear as far as I know), it was the choice of the filmmaker to do this. Films, no matter how real they try to be, are designed. They are created and the creator of this film chose to make Laura a helpless victim without agency. That’s what I believe our reviewer had a problem with.

    Now, we could talk for hours about the reality of the situation. We could talk about how the cartels would’ve killed her family, would’ve murdered and beheaded everyone she knew when they were done with her anyway. But that did not happen in the film. The film just ends with her still alive. In a sense, what has happened to her was horrible, but she got out better than she likely would have.

  • Mav

    Wow, I personally find this review rather offensive.

  • In what way?

  • LaSargenta

    So there’s a remake?

  • Bluejay

    Yes, with Gina Rodriguez. This bit sounds encouraging, and hopefully an improvement:

    “It’s a reconceptualizing of the original film, and it’s more modern,” Rodriguez says. “[Gloria is] someone that’s actively trying to save herself and her family. I think that’s really amazing because a lot of the women in my life, they actively work toward keeping their families safe, and they actively try to fix situations. There’s no woman I know in my life that just sits back. Women aren’t necessarily always portrayed as proactively trying to save ourselves in action films. It’s very empowering to see those stories because I know that’s what the women in my life do.”

  • Tonio Kruger

    In other words, it sounds like another bullshit Hollywood project that is based more upon expectations of what American audiences would like to see than on the experiences of actual Mexicans.

    Given the number of Hollywood celebrities who have done their best over the years to keep the cartels in business with their various drug habits, I should find this ironic but instead I find it a bit sad.

  • Bluejay

    it sounds like another bullshit Hollywood project that is based more upon expectations of what American audiences would like to see than on the experiences of actual Mexicans

    How do you get that from what Rodriguez said? She said that women in her life actively work to keep their families safe and fix situations. Are you dismissing HER actual experience? :-)

    Also interesting to note that the cast and crew are 95% Latinx, and that the script is by the Mexican-born writer/director Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer, for what it’s worth.

    And yeah, it’s no secret that Hollywood sells fantasies of empowerment (see: every superhero movie ever). They’re not always realistic; but if we’re going to have unrealistic stories, I’d rather they presented us with characters (particularly women and POC) who are agents of their own fate rather than helpless puppets.

  • Tonio Kruger

    Fair enough. My Mexican-American female relatives never encouraged me to think of myself as a victim either and I often have a problem with much modern-day political rhetoric precisely because the pro-active attitudes I was taught by my Mexican-born father and his siblings vary so greatly from the more passive attitudes that are frequently promoted by American society.

    That said, I can’t help but think that the Mexicans who have posted on this thread have a point. I wish for their sake that they didn’t but then as a Hispanic half-and-half who lived all his life in the States and who has had the luxury of living my teenage years in a far better neighborhood than the one I was born in (a fate not shared by every American, much less every American of Mexican descent), I also realize that it would be easy for me to dismiss their concerns because I have never had to deal with the type of situations about which they are talking.

    For that matter, it would be very easy for me to agree with Ms. Rodriguez and I can’t help but wonder how much that agreement would be based on reality and how much on wishful thinking.

    Of course, all this just could be frustration and anger over the ongoing drug war which has been going on since I was young and appears destined to go on until my teen-aged niece is an old lady.

    If so, mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa.

  • Bluejay

    I’ve been thinking about what I wrote, and I want to make it clear that I don’t intend to minimize the fraught situation of real people under the thumb of the drug cartels. But it seems to me that Miss Bala — at least the Rodriguez remake, judging by the trailer — falls in the action genre, with the likes of Die Hard or Taken. We don’t demand that those films depict what it’s really like to be a terrorist’s hostage or the parent of a girl abducted by sex slavers, and we don’t expect real people to fight their way out of those situations the way Bruce Willis and Liam Neeson do. They’re power fantasies centered on white men kicking ass. It would just be refreshing to see a Latina woman similarly centered and empowered, even in an entertainment genre that doesn’t aim to speak to the grim reality of such situations.

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