Producer, director, writer, and star Justin Chon pours himself into his new movie “Blue Bayou”. The film had its world premiere back in July at the Cannes Film Festival but was then kept from a lot of critics by its distributor Focus Features. That’s often a concerning (and frustrating) sign, often showing a lack of confidence by the studio.
In this case it’s hard to tell the reason. Certain distributors have stepped back from the strategies that worked so well in the heart of the pandemic resulting in fewer critics having access to their movies. Despite its flaws, “Blue Bayou” isn’t the kind of movie you keep away from reviewers. In fact, it’s exactly the kind of movie that could use as much exposure as possible. But Focus Features went another route meaning the movie not only missed a word-of-mouth push from critics, but it was also missed by a lot of moviegoers.
“Blue Bayou” has a lot on its mind, and for many people it’s sure to open their eyes to some upsetting truths. It’s story takes aim at America’s immigration system, more specifically the legal loopholes used to deport adoptees regardless of how long they have been in the country. The Child Citizenship Act of 2000 righted this wrong but only for adoptees under 18 at the time the act was signed into law. Anyone over 18 were not protected and therefore subject to be deported. It’s an ugly truth and Chon deserves credit for bringing it to light.
Set and shot just outside of New Orleans, the film is part blue-collar family story and part immigration drama. For the most part Chon holds those two elements together well. But he loses his grip during the final act which features a couple of maddening storytelling blunders and a bludgeoning overwrought ending that didn’t leave me with the feeling Chon wants us to have.
Storywise, Chon plays Antonio LeBlanc, a tattoo artist expecting a new baby with his wife Kathy (Alicia Vikander). Financially, times are rocky for the LeBlancs. Kathy is a nurse who picks up as many shifts as she can while Antonio struggles to find a second job due to some past non-violent felonies on his record. But when it comes to love, the two couldn’t be happier. And Antonio’s relationship with his young step-daughter Jessie (a charming Sydney Kowalske) is one of the story’s sweetest components.
The first half of “Blue Bayou” does a terrific job developing the emotional connections between Antonio, Kathy, and Jessie. One of my favorite moments in the film is a tender scene where Antonio takes Jessie to his “secret spot” – a small remote pond surrounded by trees covered in weepy Spanish Moss. The playful interplay between the two is both organic and moving.
Through the first two-thirds of the movie Chon also does a good job building up central tension that ultimately turns this family’s life upside down. Antonio was born in Korea but was adopted by an American family when he was 3-years-old. So he’s lived in the United States for over 30 years. After being arrested for an altercation with an abusive (and laughably bad) police officer caricature, Antonio is turned over to ICE to face deportation due to the aforementioned government loophole. He can fight it in court, but if he loses he can never come back to the States.
The sheer reality of that system existing is appalling and for the most part Chon does a good job exposing it. It’s the final third where the storytelling turns from really good to downright messy. The last 20 minutes are equal part frustrating and baffling. I wouldn’t dare spoil anything, but it’s one of those cases where a couple of simple and obvious lines of communication would have led to a much different ending. And in Chon’s attempt to heighten the drama, he misses a couple of glaring questions that I was still asking well after the movie ended. And there’s that emotionally bruising final scene where you can see the movie working hard to squeeze every single tear out of its audience.
There are a couple of other nagging little ticks that bugged me. Like the hand-held camera that’s ALWAYS moving particularly in the first half (thankfully it seemed to settle down a bit in the second). There’s also a subplot involving a Vietnamese-American woman named Parker (Linh-Dan Pham) that’s beautiful and touching on its own merit, but often feels disconnected from the film as a whole once the melodrama really kicks in.
“Blue Bayou” may get lost trying to do too much and it might lay things on a little too thick. But there’s still plenty to like about it. At the top of the list has to be the performances starting with Chon’s. You can’t help but be drawn in by the humanity he brings to Antonio. His emotions are raw and true and he grounds us in a reality that’s sobering even as things start to feel fabricated. Vikander is a good match, drawing more out of her character than I expected. And her rendition of the title song around the midway point left me speechless.