Review: Melodrama undercuts heart of 'Blue Bayou'
Courtesy of Focus
At its core, Justin Chon’s stirring, but schmaltzy directorial effort “Blue Bayou” has a message worth hearing. It tries to capture the immigrant experience with a delicate lens about the fear of being left behind and getting thrown out of a country you’ve called home. We’ve always known unconscionable loopholes existed within the American immgiration system, but few movies have gone above and beyond at showcasing the harsh ramifications. On one hand, “Blue Bayou” brings attention to a love overdue subject, but on the other, it’s buried underneath layers of melodramatic subplots and cinematic cliches to where the urgency Chon is chasing after stumbles in execution.
Chon, directing himself in a nuanced performance, plays Antonio LeBlanc, an immigrant brought into the US from Korea at the age of 3, trying to make ends meet for his wife, Kathy (Alica Vikander) and adorable stepdaughter, Jessie (Sydney Kowalske). The opening, uninterrupted, tracking shot of Antonio interviewing for a job as a mechanic, which quickly falls apart after a past felony record is brought up, paints a cruel picture of the obstacles and hurdles those in his shoes constantly face. Sure, Antonio is American, but in the eyes of those who wield hiring power, he’s just another crook on the street.
With another baby on the way, Antonio’s day job as a contracted tattoo artist does minimal to pay the bills and when Kathy’s ex-husband (and Jessie’s biological father) Ace (Mark O’Brien), a local cop who left them years earlier, enters the picture, it boils into chaos as his racist partner Denny (Emory Cohen) nearly beats Antonio into submission and arrests him. This results in several red flags getting raised on Antonio’s citizenship and a judge has ordered deportation, utilizing a loophole in the 2000 written law, forcing a major ultimatum: leave voluntarily or fight the order and risk getting exiled for good.
From a narrative standpoint, the eventual trial on Antonio’s legal citizenship would be enough to sustain the nearly two hour film, but Chon can’t resist filling his movie with several undercooked elements. These include a secondary thread involving a Vietnamese cancer patient he meets in the hospital and a quick run-in with his old gang of motorcycle thieves. “Blue Bayou” also overestimates how much audiences are going to care about the severed relationship Ace has with Jessie. It’s forcely interwoven and never creates the payoff Chon hopes for and an awkward sequence inside an airport, where all the classic troupes are rolled out as Antonio’s fate hangs in limbo, hit the wrong note.
Shot on glistening 16mm, and filmed throughout the suburbs of Louisiana, “Blue Bayou” gets creative with its visual presentation; and Vikander’s soothing rendition of the films titular song brandishes goosebumps, but you can’t help and wonder had Chon stop muddying the waters with unnecessary diversions, the primary focus would shine through. Alas, the photographs over the closing credits of legal citizens getting deported against their will, who were brought into the United States as children, are a heartbreaking reminder of the injustices that still remain. “Blue Bayou” might not move the needle on these conversations, but at least the attempt was there.
BLUE BAYOU opens in theaters Friday, September 17th