It reminds me a little of "Traffic," also about drugs and smuggling between Mexico and the US, only here the point of view is limited to that of Stephanie Sigman, as Laura Guerrero, who by happenstance wins the crown of Miss Baja, even while she has been kidnapped and used by a drug gang, La Estrella. (I wonder if there was any irony intended.) I understand this was "ripped from the headlines" or "based on a true story" but that rarely means much. Real life is confusing and full of adventitiousness. It's murky. Half the time we don't know what the hell is going on. Maybe that's why this film limits itself to Sigman's point of view. Several scenes are shot that way. The camera follows her around. She's in just about every scene. We get to know only what Stephanie Sigman's character knows. The audience is forced to identify with this innocent young woman, just as it was forced to identify with Janet Leigh in "Psycho."
Briefly, Sigman tries to enter a beauty contest and attends a party in which a drug gang commits a kind of massacre. The gang captures her and thereafter she's their slave, forced to smuggle money into the US, subject to all sorts of sexual abuse, which is muted in the film. The gang know who she is, where she lives, and who is in her family. There's nothing much she can do. A gang leader drives her out into the desert, gives her some money, and tells her she can leave. "Just walk straight ahead and sooner or later you'll come to someplace. Just don't contact anyone you know, and don't ever go home." She doesn't leave. Would any of us? Sigman -- well, one can easily see how she might win a beauty contest. (They're as phony in Mexico as they are here, and they provide the only semi-comic moments in the film because they're such an easy target.) Sigman isn't a stunning beauty, but she's attractive enough and has a flawless figure. Catalina Sandina Moreno was attractive too, in the superior "Maria, Full of Grace."
As the central figure, Sigman must carry the movie. Maybe she could have but the role is written with only one dimension possible. The young woman hardly has any lines because she's afraid to speak up. She's constantly baffled and terrified, and though it doesn't give the actress a chance to do much, it's understandable. She an unwilling witness to several shoot outs and a couple of really brutal murders. She walks through the movie with her mouth open and her head down. At that, it's an improvement over most of the commercial tripe being ground out in Hollywood.
I've spent some time in Mexico, including Tijuana, some years ago but I don't think I'd do it again. The general impression I've gotten -- and not just from this movie -- is that the country and some of the border cities in the USA are beginning to resemble a Hobbesian world of all against all. Very little is what it seems to be. When Sigman is "captured" (after saving the life of a high-echelon anti-drug personage), the media trumpet the death of the gang members and the capture of Sigman, who is now considered a lawless bandit herself. But she's not sent to prison. After the police beat her, she's thrown out on the street.
The heart sinks -- for her, for us, for a civilization whose center cannot hold.