Blue Bayou premieres in theaters on Sept. 17, 2021.
Immigration stories told on film are almost always emotional wringers. Even if the person arrives in their new country with relative ease and no trauma, there are the overwhelming issues of acclimation and belonging as shown in Brooklyn and Avalon. Blue Bayou, however, beautifully personalizes a part of the broken immigration system that isn’t talked about nearly as much as others, exposing the plight affecting children adopted from foreign countries, brought to America and then never naturalized by their guardians or adopted parents. Vulnerable to deportation for a myriad of reasons, many are permanently sent back to countries they don’t even remember.
Writer/director Justin Chon lays out this particular situation through Antonio LeBlanc (played by Chon), a Korean American living in Louisiana. He’s happily married to Kathy (Alicia Vikander), and is a genuinely doting husband to his pregnant wife and a loving stepfather to her young daughter, Jessie (Sydney Kowalske). Covered in ink and riding a motorcycle, Antonio is the fun dad that plays hooky with Jessie and works in a tattoo parlor. But Antonio also can’t catch a break. He’s got two glaring felonies on his record for past crimes that keep him from getting better employment with benefits, so he’s behind on his mounting bills and has a mother-in-law who isn’t impressed.
Worse yet is Kathy’s ex, Ace (Mark O’Brien). A New Orleans cop who abandoned her and Jessie, he now wants back into their life and is resentful for Antonio taking his place. Those bad feelings are what usher in a cataclysmic downward spiral for Antonio as he’s provoked into a fight that gets him arrested and then picked up by ICE for not being naturalized. Antonio is as shocked as anyone, which leaves him and Kathy scrambling to find the money to pay for a lawyer to make a case for him to stay.
While the problems stack up on Antonio in an unrelenting fashion, Chon’s naturalistic direction captures the intimate moments of this small family. This window into their relatable world is what keeps the film from sinking into melodrama. We genuinely feel for the emotional wounds left unresolved, and delicately revealed to us, from Antonio’s young life that have followed him into adulthood. We’re allowed to experience the painful spaces Antonio has long kept hidden from himself, and his wife, as he reckons with the trauma inflicted on him by terrible “parents” as an adopted, and then fostered, child.
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His urgent situation to find money and bolster his immigration case creates a tangential friendship with Parker (Linh Dan Pham), a Vietnamese immigrant dying from cancer who comes to Antonio for a tattoo. Pham beautifully infuses Parker with a compassion that paves a path for Antonio to understand his absent heritage and ignite a curiosity for his own roots that no one has ever stoked in him before. It’s played like a needed, graceful lifeline appearing just when both character’s situations are most dire.
The rest of the core cast is equally impressive. Chon’s Antonio sounds like an authentic boy from the bayou, but he’s not and he knows it as he continues to navigate his otherness from childhood into adulthood. Despite his mistakes, he’s earned love and compassion in his found family of Kathy and Jessie. And both actresses deliver quiet and sincere performances, especially young Kowalske, who takes us on a journey of paternal adoration to heartbreak that culminates in a scene that is so emotionally gutting and shattering that her performance just wrenched the tears out of me.
If the film stumbles a bit, it’s in the machinations of Ace and his alpha male partner. They both feel overly arch and a tad too convenient in their dogged pursuit of Antonio. Plus, their storyline is the only one where the melodrama feels overly present and layered on a bit too thick. The great compliment about why it doesn’t sit right is that Chon’s film doesn’t need it. The truth of Antonio’s situation, which is a reality for so many real adopted children from foreign countries right now, is harrowing enough to land the movie’s point.
What Chon is able to convey in Blue Bayou, both emotionally and informationally, is memorable, admirable, and haunting.