‘Blue Bayou’: Film Review | Cannes 2021

Director Justin Chon stars opposite Alicia Vikander in this drama about a Korean-born adoptee raised in Louisiana, fighting to keep his family together as he faces deportation.

The harsh loopholes in American immigration legislation that allow adoptees who have spent their entire lives in the country to be deported over paperwork irregularities provide a sturdy narrative spine for Blue Bayou. There’s enormous heart behind Justin Chon’s drama, and wrenching performances full of feeling from the writer-director and his co-star Alicia Vikander. But those strengths don’t obscure the problems of an overdetermined screenplay, with too many plot points competing for focus and too many moments of strained melodrama. This is a film that seldom hits an emotional note with delicacy when it can hammer it.

Opening Sept. 17 through Focus Features after launching in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section, Chon’s third feature as director following Gook and Ms. Purple has the feel of a Sundance movie that could have benefitted from an extra round in the screenwriting lab. Still, there’s a lot here that’s good, starting with the honorable intention to tell a story about the travesty of immigration law enforcement that tears apart American families.

Blue Bayou

The Bottom Line

Messy gumbo but not without flavor.

Release date: Friday, Sept. 17
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Cast: Justin Chon, Alicia Vikander, Mark O’Brien, Linh-Dan Pham, Sydney Kowalske, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Emory Cohen, Geraldine Singer, Toby Vitrano, Altonio Jackson, Truong Quang Tran, Sage Kim Gray, Susan McPhail, Jacci Gresham
Director-screenwriter: Justin Chon

Rated R,
1 hour 59 minutes

Chon plays Antonio LeBlanc, who came to the U.S. from Korea at age 3, adopted by a since-deceased couple in a small Louisiana bayou town near Baton Rouge. He now lives in New Orleans, happily married to physical therapist Kathy (Vikander) and a loving stepfather to her sweet 7-year-old daughter Jessie (Sydney Kowalske). Antonio and Kathy have a baby coming, and the money he’s pulling in as a tattoo artist is not enough to support them.

But Antonio has a troubled past, including a pair of felony charges for motorcycle theft. That prevents him from getting a job as a mechanic in an opening scene in which the camera remains on him throughout the dispiriting interview, effectively showing how the system is stacked against people like Antonio turning their lives around. When the unseen interviewer ignores information about his Louisiana upbringing and insists on knowing where he was born, it represents the view of many that immigrants have no right to call themselves American.

Jesse’s biological father Ace (Mark O’Brien) is a local cop who abandoned them years earlier and now wants to be a part of his daughter’s life, despite the fact that she doesn’t know him and feels uncomfortable around him. Ace’s racist blowhard partner Denny (a grating caricature of a bad cop in Emory Cohen’s strident performance) gets involved during a spat in a supermarket that swiftly escalates. This results in Antonio being brutalized and hauled in for resisting arrest, which brings him to the attention of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

In a meeting with sympathetic attorney Barry Boucher (Vondie Curtis-Hall), Antonio and Kathy learn that a judge has ordered his deportation, and that despite their marriage, the failure of his adoptive parents to formalize his citizenship, along with his criminal record, gives him few options. He can comply with the order and depart, filing for a change in his status from Korea, or stay and appeal, which is risky since a loss will be final.

This would be more than enough fuel to keep a compelling narrative humming. But Chon stirs in a secondary plotline involving Vietnamese American cancer patient Parker (Linh-Dan Pham), who befriends Antonio and gives him a glimpse of how a family with a shared Asian cultural background might feel. There’s also his return to crime, stealing motorcycles for cash to pay Boucher’s retainer, which distances Kathy and makes her mother (Geraldine Singer) even more determined to get her away from the son-in-law she has never liked. Then there are flashes of Antonio’s earliest memory, which play out in visually pretty interludes involving the tortured decision of his mother (Sage Kim Gray) to give him up for adoption.

There’s so much going on that Chon’s storytelling lacks fluidity. And that’s not including revelations about Antonio’s American childhood, bouncing from one foster home to the next after being rejected by his original adoptive parents; a regular at the tattoo parlor who works for ICE (Toby Vitrano) and tries to help; or the rogue actions of Denny and his roughneck friends to teach Antonio a lesson. It seems implausible that Ace could be so clueless about his beat partner’s morally reprehensible behavior, providing him with a too-easy redemption.

The film’s title comes from the classic Linda Ronstadt hit, which Vikander belts out with creditable vocal chops during a cookout with Parker’s family and friends. That scene and many others establish the depth of the love between Kathy and Antonio, and the heightened emotional stakes of the family’s threatened separation soon after their new baby daughter is born. The story is unquestionably moving, even if Chon slathers on Roger Suen’s syrupy score like a director who doesn’t trust his material.

On one hand, Chon’s efforts to expand the film’s reflections on Asian American identity with the Parker thread are laudable. But there’s also something artificial about the way her looming mortality puts Antonio in touch with painful fragments of his early life in Korea. Parker’s observations about water lilies seeming like they have no roots and yet not being able to survive without them are just one example of dialogue that feels purple and overwritten.

There are welcome quiet moments when Antonio retreats to his favorite spot by the bayou, early on sharing it with Jesse and then later alone. In these scenes DPs Matthew Chuang and Ante Cheng explore the physical beauty of Louisiana, along with shimmering night shots of the New Orleans streets and handsome vistas of the Crescent City Connection crossing the Mississippi. The film has no shortage of visual interest and benefits from an evocative sense of place.

The closing scene goes all out with various characters making mad dashes to get to the airport as the future fate of the family hangs in the balance. These very movie-ish developments feel overwrought and contrived, but the actors nonetheless make the conclusion genuinely affecting. Closing-credits images of the faces of legally adopted people recently removed from the U.S. or facing deportation, detailing their length of time in the country, are a sobering reminder that even if Blue Bayou sometimes lacks nuance, it’s telling a story that needs to be heard.

Full credits

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Cast: Justin Chon, Alicia Vikander, Mark O’Brien, Linh-Dan Pham, Sydney Kowalske, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Emory Cohen, Geraldine Singer, Toby Vitrano, Altonio Jackson, Truong Quang Tran, Sage Kim Gray, Susan McPhail, Jacci Gresham
Production companies: Macro, Entertainment One
Distribution: Focus Features
Director-screenwriter: Justin Chon
Producers: Charles D. King, Kim Roth, Poppy Hanks, Justin Chon
Executive producers: Nick Meyer, Zev Foreman, Clara Wu Tsai, Eddie Rubin
Directors of photography: Matthew Chuang, Ante Cheng
Production designer: Bo Koung Shin
Costume designer: Eunice Jera Lee
Music: Roger Suen
Editor: Reynolds Barney
Casting: Marisol Roncall, Chelsea Ellis Bloch

Rated R, 1 hour 59 minutes