Blue Bayou – movie review

Justin Chon treads a difficult path in his new film Blue Bayou. The writer-director (and star) seeks to highlight a little-known social issue in America; but he uses a problematic protagonist to do it. The result is a heartfelt and moving film, but one that’s perhaps less powerful than Chon intended.

The issue is the plight of the now-adult adoptees brought to the United States from overseas before 2000. Children brought to the US before 2000 and who have not since become US citizens are at risk of being deported; no matter how long they’ve lived in America or how little connection they have with their “home” countries. While the law was changed in 2000, it wasn’t retrospective. So whole generations of these adoptees are in jeopardy. Ironically, many of them are in the US because of devastation wrought on their native countries by wars conducted by America.

Antonio LeBlanc (Chon) is one of these children. He’s Korean by birth but was adopted by a Louisiana family as a toddler. Kathy (Alicia Vikander) is Antonio’s wife and she has a daughter Jessie (Sydney Kowalske) from a previous relationship, who Antonio loves like she was his own child. They live in the Algiers district of New Orleans. Antonio works as a tattooist, while Kathy is a rehabilitation nurse. Jesse’s father is NOPD officer Ace (Mark O’Brien). Things are tense between Kathy and Ace because Kathy won’t let him see Jessie. One afternoon, Ace and his odious partner Denny (Emory Cohen) encounter Kathy, Jessie and Antonio in a grocery store. Things spiral out of control, and the two cops arrest Antonio.

But when Kathy goes to bail him out, she learns he’s no longer in police custody. Antonio has been taken by the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (disturbingly known as ICE). While the alleged assault is minor, ICE has determined that Antonio’s adoptive parents didn’t fill out the “right paperwork” back in the day. So while Antonio knows little of his former life in Korea and has lived in the US basically his whole life, he’s considered an illegal alien – and liable to be deported. While waiting for a court hearing on his case, Antonio encounters Parker (Linh-Dan Pham), a Vietnamese-American woman whose experiences have some echoes to Antonio’s.

The main issue I had with Blue Bayou was the character of Antonio. As written, he’s all over the place. In early scenes, Chon shows how much he loves Kathy and Jessie. But then the character makes some baffling choices. I get the plot needs him to behave in a certain way to draw him into the central conflict, but his actions detract from the “good guy” narrative Chon has established. I suspect some will feel Antonio actually kind of deserves what happens to him in the film; though I think that would be a misreading of the film. Chon’s trying to show Antonio as a basically decent man pushed into difficult choices by circumstance. By the same token, he treats Kathy quite badly on occasions, making her actions later in the film somewhat difficult to understand. And towards the end, one character flips completely; a change that’s a bit too sudden to be credible.

But having said that, the film has a lot going for it. Among its many attributes are fabulous cinematography from Ante Cheng and Matthew Chuang, accompanied by a beautifully understated score by Roger Suen. Chon directs in relaxed fashion, allowing the events to unspool rather than forcing the action along. He adds a nice touch with a coda at the end highlighting what happened to real people in this situation. But what really powers the film is the fine acting.

Chon (the Twilight series) delivers a powerful performance as the complicated Antonio. He’s ably matched by Alicia Vikander (Beckett) as the level-headed Kathy. Mark O’Brien (Marriage Story) manages to do a lot with relatively little screen time as Ace. And Linh-Dan Pham provides a calming presence as the philosophical Parker.

I was rather torn by Blue Bayou – I cared about the issue but I was dubious about some of the plot elements. But while I found parts of the film a little clunky, Chon’s passion for the subject is undeniable. If you can forgive its script issues, Blue Bayou nonetheless delivers an emotionally wrenching story driven by powerful performances.

David Edwards

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