How a filmmaker chooses to tell a story is up to them, obviously. They can go big, they can go small, choose genres to play in, etc. It’s all part of the fun of going to the movies. However, sometimes you do wonder why a writer or a director (or both) opt to tell a certain story in a certain way. In the case of Blue Bayou, writer/director/star Justin Chon is making a lot of bold choices. When they work, they really work. There are so many really perceptive and small character moments that work, all while telling a story of major significance, that the almost cartoonish melodrama popping up throughout feels decidedly out of place. It’s not enough to torpedo the film, but it does make it somewhat more of a mixed experience than it otherwise would have been.
Blue Bayou has all of the ingredients to be an awards player, including a bow at the Cannes Film Festival. Chon’s highs certainly suggest Oscar bait. The occasional lows, however, remind you that this will prove to be a bit of a divisive flick. Still, it’s an important issue being tackled, and done so in a cinematic way. It’s not perfect, but it’s an experience you won’t soon be able to shake.
Antonio LeBlanc (Chon) has only known the American way of life. While born in Korea, he’s called Louisiana home since the age of three. He has a U.S. citizen for a wife in Kathy (Alicia Vikander) and a stepdaughter in Jessie (Sydney Kowalske) who considers him more of a father than her biological one, police officer Ace (Mark O’Brien). He’s also a struggling ex-con, looking for work to support their growing family, as Kathy is pregnant. Work is proving elusive, frustrating the couple. One day, while shopping, they start to bicker, and that bickering is observed by Ace and his partner Denny (Emory Cohen). A skirmish ensues, resulting in a bit of racial profiling, leading to Denny arresting Antonio. This is the start of a Sisyphean struggle for Antonio, as his very way of life is threatened, since he’s now at risk of being deported. Adopted as a small child, his paperwork presents issues, meaning his status in the United States hangs in the balance.
Faced with deportation, Antonio struggles to keep his family intact, as well as make money to pay his lawyer (Vondie Curtis-Hall). As we watch Antonio and Kathy navigate this labyrinth, he also befriends a sickly woman named Parker (Linh Dan Pham) who helps tie him to his Korean heritage. Through it all, more and more comes out about Antonio’s past, both in terms of crime and his time in the foster care system. One thing is clear, however…this system is very broken if Antonio could potentially be torn away from Jessie, Kathy, and his impending newborn.
Justin Chon the actor is very much on point here, even if he’s upstaged by Alicia Vikander. They have an easy chemistry, while Chon’s best scenes are with the precocious young Sydney Kowalske. The three of them are good, with Vikander best in show. Chon really does throw himself into the character, though, and it’s a very good performance. On the other hand, Emory Cohen almost foams at the mouth as a villainous cop. It’s a one-note performance of a one-note character, unbecoming of the actor or the filmmaker. Mark O’Brien has some of those moments, though he eventually shows some shades to the character. They’re poorly written though, and the performances can’t save those parts. The aforementioned Vondie Curtis-Hall and Linh Dan Pham lead the supporting cast, which also includes Geraldine Singer, Toby Vitrano, and more.
Now, when it comes to Justin Chon the filmmaker, there are highs and lows. His best work comes from his direction, which observes characters and captures some terrific shots. On the other hand, his script is somewhat hit or miss. There are some brilliant small bits, with Vikander’s singing of the title song chief among them, but then almost cartoon-like villains with Cohen and O’Brien. Then, there’s the ending. Some might love it. Some might reject it. I fell more towards the former than the latter, but it’s a big choice that will split audiences down the middle.
Oscar-wise, Blue Bayou is a potential X factor, to be sure. It all just depends on how voters respond to it. Chon certainly could be in play somewhere, while Vikander definitely has a shot in Best Supporting Actress. The movie may slip through the cracks, but Focus Features clearly wants to keep this one in the conversation.
Blue Bayou is a very baity melodrama that sometimes goes over the top with emotions, but it’s all in service of an important issue. That helps make the bigger moments go down easier. By the end, you’ll be a puddle of emotion. That’s how you know Chon has succeeded. Whether or not this becomes an Academy Award player for Focus Features, it’s an important work that deserves to be seen.