Multi-hyphenate actor and filmmaker Justin Chon stars in, directs and writes Blue Bayou, an emotional, wonderfully performed drama that marks his fourth feature as director.
The film places the spotlight on a deeply troubling citizenship loophole that exists in the United States, whereby the Child Citizenship Act of 2000 allows adopted individuals originally from overseas to be granted citizenship – but those who turned 18 before the law was passed are not covered. Essentially, this means that despite growing up in the U.S. and being raised by American parents, this arbitrary age cutoff can place adopted individuals at risk of deportation, torn from their lives and families, sent to a country they were not raised in.
It’s an irrational and severely unjust defect in the federal law – and Blue Bayou makes no qualms about its desire to have the viewer understand just how it can affect individuals and families who find themselves at its mercy.
Chon stars as Antonio LeBlanc, a Korean American adoptee living outside of New Orleans, Louisiana. He’s happily married to Kathy (Alicia Vikander) and has a loving relationship with his stepdaughter, Jessie (Sydney Kowalske). Things take a turn following an altercation with his stepdaughter’s father, Ace (Mark O’Brien), a police officer. Ace, unhappy with the poor relationship he has with his daughter and frustrated to see this new man assuming a role he should have, confronts Antonio at a local supermarket. Denny (Emory Cohen), Ace’s problematic buddy and fellow officer, also gets involved. The result: Antonio facing potential deportation when it’s discovered that he was never naturalised by his adoptive parents prior to that policy.
Blue Bayou may have a straightforward primary plotline, but there are a number of avenues Chon wants to explore while navigating the main road. There’s Antonio’s past criminal record, which doesn’t help his case; the lawyer (Vondie Curtis-Hall) that Antonio and Kathy hire – assistance that doesn’t come cheap; the lack of funds, not helped by the small number of shifts Antonio gets as a tattoo artist; and Antonio’s troubling upbringing. Add to that, Antonio’s unexpected friendship with Parker (Linh Dan Pham), a Vietnamese refugee who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Chon’s determination to cover as much ground as he can with his character study is certainly ambitious, although there may be few too many pieces in play as his screenplay endeavours to keep emotions cranked high throughout. Some aspects have no choice but to be simplified, perhaps overly so, as Antonio’s citizenship dilemma plays out with his cultural and personal unbalancing. A crime sidestep rings a little hollow, racist cop Denny is obviously caricatured, and Antonio’s youth feels unexplored when Chon wants it to play a key part. Nevertheless, Chon’s clear passion and intention shine through, and he and his strong cast push the film’s beating heart home.
The film is firmly in the vein of the American indie drama, with a number of the visual flourishes and character beats – thought-filled stares towards bodies of water, picturesque rides, artsy flashbacks – film lovers will have to come to expect in the sector. Done well, these types of emotive and melodramatic leanings can draw you in, and Chon’s naturalistic direction and Blue Bayou‘s overall lived-in feel quickly grab you. Chon has dashes of Wong Kar-Wai and Terrence Malick painting his heartfelt, purpose-driven film – and it’s to his credit that it hits hard, even as you see the machinations at play. You may be caught unawares to the power of the film’s melodramatic moments; subtle, no, but the steadily-growing emotions do reach a fever pitch that may smack you silly during the finale.
As mentioned, Blue Bayou‘s performances are key to the film’s overall power. As Antonio, Chon shines bright. It’s a layered and emotionally fuelled turn, with pain, anger, love – hell, the whole gamut of emotions – driving his magnetic performance. Oscar-winner Vikander, despite a slightly bumpy south Louisiana accent, is also fantastic as Kathy, while young Kowalske delivers a natural and highly expressive turn as Jessie, effortlessly tugging at the heartstrings during some tough moments.
Blue Bayou is an affecting drama that knows what it wants to say. Heavy-handed? Certainly. But the heavy hand can bring the pain, and as the film closes with very real examples of those affected by this issue, the smack is more than understandable.
‘Blue Bayou’ opened in Australian cinemas on November 18th and U.S. cinemas on September 17th.