"Blue Bayou" walks the line and occasionally stumbles into at best, melodrama and at worst, manipulation, but it has a pure heart. It features characters we don't often see on screen, and includes some tremendous performances. As it drives towards its unpredictable conclusion, there is a scene that will either bring you to tears, or will make your eyes roll so far into the back of your skull that you may just pass out.
For me, "Blue Bayou" worked tremendously (put me in the "brought tears to your eyes" category) and it would be an absolute crime if its writer/director and star, Justin Chon, isn't recognized this awards season. This is a story that needs to be seen, about how the American Dream can - for many - be realized as an absolute nightmare.
Did you know that thousands of adopted children with foreign origins are being deported on the regular? The story that Justin Chon decides to tell is an important one, personalizing the struggle that many Americans face. When the film ended and some statistics were flashed on the screen however, I wish they hadn't been. "Blue Bayou" works on its own as a personal story without the added knowledge that this character's journey isn't unique.
Chon (who wrote and directed as well) plays Antonio LeBlanc, a Korean-American man struggling to support his family and living in the bayou of Louisiana. His wife, Kathy (Alicia Vikander) is pregnant with his child, and he is incredibly close with Kathy's little girl, Jessie (Sydney Kowalske), born from another father but who knows and refers to Antonio fully as "dad."
Antonio is a gifted mechanic, but can't get work due to some past convictions on his record. So he is biding his time as a tattoo artist. He was adopted at an early age by American parents, but he has no real family other than the family he's made with Kathy.
Jessie's father, Ace (Mark O'Brien) is a local police officer who desperately wants time with his daughter, but Kathy has been keeping him away. When Ace's partner, a dickish cop (Emory Cohen), tries to teach Antonio a lesson, things spiral out of control. Before Antonio knows it, he's been detained by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and is facing deportation.
Chon gives an award-worthy performance as we empathize with his character's struggles, and Vikander - as always - is tremendous. The scene-stealing star of "Blue Bayou" though, is nine-year-old Sydney Kowalske, who is asked to do a lot and delivers. The chemistry between she and Chon really sells the emotional underpinnings of the story and makes it feel believable.
Occasional beats of the film are a bit on-the-nose or over-played, but "Blue Bayou" is never dull and you'll find yourself invested in the outcome...an outcome that feels appropriate given what comes before. If the purpose is to show us how outdated immigration policies can rip families apart, then it's a success. But even without the bigger picture in frame, "Blue Bayou" excels in the details...taking a wonderfully colorful, nuanced snapshot of how difficult it is to make it in America, despite being an American, in every sense of the word.
Run Time: 1 hour 52 minutes.
Starring: Justin Chon, Alicia Vikander, Sydney Kowalske, Mark O'Brien, Emory Cohen.
Written and Directed by Justin Chon ("Ms. Purple," "Gook," "Man Up").
"Blue Bayou" is in theaters on Friday, September 17th, 2021.
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