BLUE BAYOU (2021)
Starring Justin Chon, Alicia Vikander, Mark O’Brien, Linh Dan Pham, Sydney Kowalske, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Emory Cohen, Susan McPhail and Sage Kim Gray.
Screenplay by Justin Chon.
Directed by Justin Chon.
Distributed by Focus Features. 119 minutes. Rated R.
Sometimes when a film shines a light on an important subject, you want to give it the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes, however, even though a movie is telling a tragic human story, it can leave you a bit cold.
Immigration and deportation are huge, volatile subjects. They can rip apart families and communities and it can come down to something as simple as a paperwork error.
Take Antonio LeBlanc (played by writer/director Justin Chon), an Asian tattoo artist and husband in New Orleans who was moved to the United States from Korea when he was three. He was adopted in the US (leading to his floridly non-Asian name) as a small child and had been living life in the States for over 30 years believing his immigration status was secure. He is married to an American woman named Kathy (Alicia Vikander), is a loving stepfather to her adorable daughter Jessie and they have another baby on the way.
However, he gets in the crosshairs of the law when Kathy’s ex-husband, a jealous and corrupt police officer, decides he wants to get split custody of Jessie. Therefore he (and his even more corrupt partner) harasses Antonio and Kathy until Antonio finally snaps and fights back, which gets him arrested and facing deportation.
Blue Bayou takes a somewhat bold chance in its narrative, making its hero often rather unsympathetic. In fact, in some ways – the guy has a criminal background, he hangs out with thugs, he attacked some policemen, even if he was provoked – Antonio is the poster boy for who perhaps should be deported.
The guy may be a doting dad, but he’s also a flagrant liar to the woman who loves him most, even before he gets into legal jeopardy. This is on some pretty major subjects – whether or not he remembers his birth mother, whether his adoptive parents are alive or dead, his criminal background and record, even how he’s making the money to pay off the immigration attorney.
Also, when he is in legal jeopardy and should be on his best behavior, he falls back into his criminal ways and starts stealing motorcycles. I mean, I get he was desperate for money, but that seems to be a massively foolhardy thing to do when he is getting deported specifically for breaking the law.
The dude had a hard, somewhat tragic life and he has finally found happiness, so why does he seem to be working so hard to screw that all up? To be perfectly honest, a great deal of his problems are of his own making.
Even on the most basic storyline level, Blue Bayou feels a little suspect. For example, once ICE captures an undocumented immigrant, do they release them on their own recognizance while they mount a defense against deportation? I am no expert on immigration, so I am literally unsure and asking this question in good faith. In other films and news stories I have seen on the subject, it has appeared that immigration keeps the person in custody in an ICE detention center while the legal machinations are worked out. However, again, I do not know this for sure, perhaps there are different levels of incarceration for different situations.
Other characters tend to change direction on a dime, seemingly just as plot points. Most specifically, Kathy’s cop ex-husband Ace goes from an antagonistic jerk to a decent, understanding guy at the drop of a hat, with very little character motivation or nuance. The cute little stepdaughter also seems to change her loves and allegiances like the wind, although I suppose that moodiness is more acceptable in a little girl.
Even the title seems a little odd. The only reason for it seems to be because the movie takes place in New Orleans and at one point one of the characters sings the old Roy Orbison/Linda Ronstadt song of the same title. I guess if you get technical, the opening couplet of the song, “I feel so bad, I got a worried mind. I’m so lonesome all of the time, since I left my baby behind on Blue Bayou” very loosely mirrors the film’s storyline.
Perhaps all of this could have still worked out. Chon’s lead performance is much more subtle and committed than his writing and directing. Vikander is also much more interesting than her character. The cinematography is stunning, and it does have a vital issue at its core. However, Blue Bayou is so heavy handed in laying out its very worthy political agenda that it rather dulls the point being made.
There are a lot of films that seem to tell the stories of undocumented immigrants in more compassionate, less manipulative, and simply more cinematic ways. Check out A Better Life or The Visitor, two better films on the subject that come to mind just off the top of my head. Blue Bayou, on the other hand, is an impassioned but imperfect near miss.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2021 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: September 16, 2021.