Blue Bayou, 2021.
Written and Directed by Justin Chon.
Starring Justin Chon, Alicia Vikander, Mark O’Brien, Linh Đan Phạm, Emory Cohen, Sydney Kowalske, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Brad Blanchard, Martin Bats Bradford, and Geraldine Singer.
As a Korean-American man raised in the Louisiana bayou works hard to make a life for his family, he must confront the ghosts of his past as he discovers that he could be deported from the only country he has ever called home.
Blue Bayou ends by showing photographs of real deported Korean American immigrants, but the filmmaking on display from writer/director Justin Chon feels personal and raw right from its opening extended take of Antonio LeBlanc (Justin Chon also stars in the leading role, delivering a heart-shattering performance of inner conflict stemming from society, the law, and a rough upbringing) keeping calm facing rejection during a job interview for prejudicial reasons. The interviewer seems more concerned with Antonio’s country of origin and a little history of nonviolent theft crimes rather than empathizing with the situation of a man, who has brought his young stepdaughter Jessie (newcomer Sydney Kowalske) along for the interview, desperately looking for more work to make an honest living, especially considering his wife Kathy (Alicia Vikander, nailing the Louisiana drawl and playing more than just a supportive partner) is about to give birth to their first child.
Again, the unbroken shot paints a humiliating and dehumanizing portrait with an initial downbeat mood rebounded by a glimpse into the bond this family shares. Antonio occasionally takes Jessie with him to work at the tattoo parlor, nature walks venturing into beautiful scenery of forest and lakes, and has the love and trust of Kathy even if her mother (Geraldine Singer) is cynical about the relationship prevailing and probably tired of loaning them money. Theoretically, an entire film could be made from this dynamic alone, but America is an unnecessarily cruel place for immigrants, so problem after problem piles up while also serving as a reckoning for Antonio to finally confront the demons he still harbors from his abusive childhood.
Complicating matters further is Kathy’s police officer ex-partner Ace (Mark O’Brien) demanding more visitation rights with Jessie years after abandoning them. As for Jessie, she has no interest in getting to know her birth father, which prompts Kathy to lie over the phone making up illnesses rather than dropping her off for a weekend. Even when they all bump into each other in a local grocery store, Jessie has no words for Ace. Sydney Kowalske also has her work cut out for her as a child actor, portraying a complex and layered character, considering that Jessie is uncertain of what Antonio’s impending biological daughter means for their relationship. Essentially, she’s nervous the love given to her and her inevitable sister will be uneven. Of course, Antonio tries his hardest to offer reassurance (there’s an adorable and amusing sequence of them dying their hair the same hot red color). However, the panic still seems to remain (especially as upsetting events threatened to tear the family apart geographically). There’s also a moment when Jessie finally believes Antonio in a devastating scene that earns its tears.
With Blue Bayou‘s tender father-stepdaughter study locked in place and emotionally captivating, Justin Chon also successfully interweaves exploring Antonio’s identity and past during his financial struggles. Due to a loophole in the justice system (and despicable behavior from a repulsive cop played by reliable scumbag character actor Emory Cohen), Antonio is also facing deportation, which raises the stakes of the drama. One way to stay in America is to convince the judge that he is a valued member of society, which is difficult since everyone who raised him is dead. Luckily, there is one individual Antonio can talk to to make a good case, but the thought of reopening those wounds is so unbearable that it jeopardizes the family staying together in a different way, allowing Alicia Vikander a few good scenes of verbally snapping some sense into him.
A subplot also sees Antonio inking tattoo art on terminally ill Vietnamese refugee Parker (a warm and melancholy Linh Dan Pham). And although her inclusion allows an opportunity for Antonio to get more in touch with Asian culture, the character also feels underwritten despite making a solid impression. Given how Ace’s already fractured familial ties could potentially run a lot deeper if Antonio is deported with Kathy and Jessie following suit (not to mention his pleas that, while temperamental, is nothing like his overtly racist cohorts), it seems more logical to dedicate a bit more time to that character, especially given his relevance to the third act. As it stands, one of his actions towards the end is not fully convincing yet works enough. A few plot details do strain creditability, but the sincerity of the performances and important message offset those minor critiques.
With time running out and limited options, it only makes sense for Antonio to exhaust every course of action at his disposal, organically resulting in a disjointed film. However, the sum of those parts feeds into the revelations of a tragic back story and greater suffering of immigrants at large. Blue Bayou eventually comes around to dealing with dark subject material that would feel insensitive and tacky in the hands of a directorial voice not well-versed in authenticity. That’s one way of saying Justin Chon’s escalation towards a melodrama is not only effective, but it’s also the equivalent of a dagger in the heart executed without exploitation. Blue Bayou rings as accurate as every real person Justin Chon pays tribute to in the ending credits. Hopefully, catharsis was found in such a deeply personal and moving project.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com