MISS BALA Bursts Onto the Screen

Catherine Hardwicke offered a sneak peek of her new work at Austin Film Society earlier this week.

Gina Rodriguez in MISS BALA.

Catherine Hardwicke, the filmmaker behind Thirteen and Twilight, used her background as someone who grew up in McAllen when she created the look for her new film: a studio remake of the 2011 Mexican indie, Miss Bala. Hardwicke appeared at a special preview screening at Austin Film Society, participating in a Q&A with her longtime friend and former boss (on SubUrbia and The Newton Boys), Austin-based director Richard Linklater. She spoke of her love for the blending of cultures along the border and her wish to convey “all the colors of Mexico.”

Gina Rodriguez (Jane the Virgin, Annihilation) takes the lead as Gloria, an American who visits Tijuana to help her close friend Suzu (Mexican actress Cristina Rodlo) enter a beauty pageant. After a horrific attack at a nightclub, Gloria can’t find Suzu and falls under the control of a drug cartel and its charismatic leader, Lino (Ismael Cruz-Córdova, Mary, Queen of Scots, Sesame Street).

Linklater and Hardwicke’s post screening Q & A. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Kenyon.

The writing in Miss Bala verges on trite at times, but Patrick Murguia’s cinematography is artful — there’s a shot of Gloria’s shoes making their way through a floor strewn with shattered window glass that I keep thinking about — and the editing by Terilyn A. Shropshire (Love & Basketball, Beyond the Lights) is worthy of note. We view the nightclub attack from Gloria’s POV; the scattered nature of the shots heightens the feeling of fear and uncertainty. Some extreme acts of violence in the film occur off-screen as Gloria’s reaction or witnessing of them remains the focus.

Photo by the critic.

Hardwicke told the audience at Monday’s screening that she and Rodriguez wanted to change the passive main character of the original into an active participant. Miss Bala doesn’t fully succeed in this aim. Gloria certainly makes choices, but there are only a small number of times that the film fully shifts out of the overdone “woman in peril” genre into something else. The main character’s agency is limited until the final act, when Gloria makes a pivotal decision. Her rebellion feels like it comes too late.

Asked by an audience member about working as a woman director in Hollywood, Hardwicke asked, “How many times do we have to prove it?” She encouraged more onscreen representation, and this is something that Gina Rodriguez pushes for as well. Miss Bala may not exactly be worth basing a movement off of, but with a Latinx actress as the head of the cast, at least it’s a small step in that direction.

Ismael Cruz-Córdova and Gina Rodriguez in MISS BALA.

Miss Bala opens in theaters nationwide Friday, Feb. 1.

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