Blue Bayou (2021)

It’s not where you’re from. It’s where you belong.

“Where are you from?” asks a disembodied voice of a prospective employer to Antonio LeBlanc (Justin Chon). Antonio begins to answer about where he grew up but is interrupted; “No, where were you born?” With a degree of resignation, Antonio relates that he was born in Korea but was adopted and brought to America at an early age. The potential employer goes on to list that Antonio also has a criminal record and is unsuitable for a minimum wage job packing shelves. The implication is that the criminal record is less of an issue than Antonio’s Korean heritage; that being Asian-American in Louisiana is less desirable than having a record. Thus, begins writer/director/star Justin Chon’s misery-filled Blue Bayou.

An American Family

Antonio is married to Kathy (Alicia Vikander), and they are expecting their first child together. He is also the stepfather to the precocious Jessie (an excellent acting turn by Sydney Kowalske). He’s working in a low-end tattoo parlor where he can barely afford to pay his station fees. The LeBlancs are on the tenuous edge of poverty, and although Antonio does his level best to find more employment, a heavily pregnant Kathy returns to nursing to boost the family income. Despite the financial straits they are in, they are still a close-knit and deeply loving unit. Antonio’s relationship with Jessie is particularly defined — he isn’t just her stepfather in her eyes, he is her father, the two have chosen each other.

In the background is Kathy’s ex, Ace (Mark O’Brien), who is a cop. He wants to spend more time with Jessie, who refuses to engage with him. A chance encounter with Ace and his heavy-handed partner Denny (Emory Cohen) in a supermarket leads to Antonio being arrested. Whilst in custody, his case is handed to ICE as it appears that despite being legally adopted (and legally married to an American citizen), there is a loophole that means he isn’t actually a citizen after all. Knowing no other life than his one in America, Antonio is faced with deportation back to Korea, a country he only knows through traumatic and watery memories.

The moment of judgement

Blue Bayou attempts to tell an important story about the Child Citizen Act and how it affects those adopted before the year 2000, but it is more a character study of a man who has trauma poured upon him from every conceivable angle. It isn’t enough that Antonio is facing deportation, he also spent most of his childhood in foster care, where he was beaten. He is living at the hardscrabble end of the working poor, and the connections he makes in his life, including a profound friendship with Vietnamese-American Parker (Linh Dan Pham), lead to tragic ends.

All of this misery could add up to something if Antonio were not so inert and almost resigned to the fact he cannot win against the system. There is no space in the film that gives any real sense of hope to the character. In the meeting with immigration lawyer Barry Boucher (Vondie Curtis-Hall), it is Kathy who asks the questions and essentially takes on Antonio’s fight. The likelihood of him winning his case is tiny, but where else can Antonio go? The only life he has known is as an American, and the only joy in his life is his family. It seems at odds then when, after being kept from his court date for legitimate reasons, he doesn’t appeal for a new sitting. Perhaps he is so inured to hopelessness that he expects the worst outcome always. It’s difficult to know what motivates Antonio beyond the love of Kathy and Jessie. He’s a beaten man who is constantly thrown down even further.

Family will find a way.

Antonio’s struggles seem almost outside the scope of his impending deportation. What could have been a tight and effective drama about an unfair law becomes a slog and a sad melodrama that never really captures the broader implications of law enforcement or ICE overreach in the States; a situation that anyone who is at all familiar with the news cycle coming out of the country is aware is endemic and truly terrifying.

What saves the film to an extent is the beauty of how it is shot. Using 16mm film, cinematographers Ante Cheng, Ms. Purple (2019), and Matthew Chuang create a shimmering luster around the Louisiana Bayou. Although Chon’s direction is solid, his script is not, and his characterization is lacking. Kathy should rest as the emotional heart of the piece, but the immensely talented Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl (2015), is given little to do but react to the circumstances around her. As those circumstances become increasingly dire, her character seems to be almost in the background. If Chon wanted to create an intimate family drama that intersects with a larger topic, his work needed to give Vikander more to do. Thankfully, Sydney Kowalske as Jessie is a delight and, in many ways, the most complex character the film has to work with.

Come back some day, come what may to Blue Bayou

Ultimately Blue Bayou is a tear-jerker, but the audience will be unsure when to shed their tears because there are just too many depressing moments. The final scene is supposed to be gut-wrenching, but the viewer is left with the feeling that they’ve been through enough on Antonio’s journey and has likely emotionally disconnected. So much potential for true heartbreak is squandered, as is the opportunity for the film to become an important part of the discourse about contemporary America and the issues that non-citizens face. Chon attempts far too late to really hammer the point home about how unfair the law is by showing titles of real-life people facing deportation under the flawed law.

Blue Bayou is a study in missed opportunities and a warning about diluting essential stories with too much melodrama. There is a powerful film hiding underneath, but too much surface never gives it the opportunity to arise.

2.5 / 5 – Alright

Reviewed by Nadine Whitney

Blue Bayou is released through Universal Pictures Australia