(Written by Allison Brown)
As a big fan of Alicia Vikander, I have been looking forward to Blue Bayou for some time, initially for months in anticipation of the original June 25th release date. Once it was announced for Cannes, the movie was pushed back without much clarity. I was so glad to finally see Justin Chon’s heartbreaking drama, which he directed, wrote, and starred in, for its upcoming wide release. Like many movies of 2021, the patience required for this feature was worth the payoff.
Blue Bayou tells the story of a blended family, the LeBlancs: Kathy (Alicia Vikander), Antonio (Justin Chon), and their adorable young daughter, Jessie (Sydney Kowalske). Cute kids and warm familial bonds have definitely become the lifeblood of Focus Features movies as of late. Kathy’s ex-husband and biological father to Jessie, Ace (Mark O’Brien), is a cop; he abandoned them and now wishes to take on more of a fatherly role. Antonio has taken over this responsibility, adopted her, and raised her as his own. Jessie, rightly so, has no desire to see Ace, which becomes a direct flame to ignite many of the more toxic elements of the plot.
Despite his lack of biological DNA connection to Jessie, Antonio is as loving and genuine a father as any other. Their relationship is tender, and Jessie wants to be just like him, despite actively acknowledging their difference in race. She even goes as far as to dye her hair black (which she is definitely too young to do), though she immediately regrets it, and guilts her father into dying his hair pink. He proudly wears the color out for a night on the town. Kathy is pregnant, and little Jessie is deeply worried that Antonio will love his biological child more. Of course, he assures her otherwise, and she claims she believes him. When the family makes a trip to the hospital for a sonogram, Jessie and Antonio meet an Asian woman, Parker (Linh-Dan Pham), who helps them retrieve a blocked bag of Doritos from the vending machine. Jessie immediately points out that Parker looks like her dad, and as the film builds, Parker becomes a physical manifestation of Antonio’s Asian heritage.
Raised in St. Francisville, Louisiana and Korean-born, Antonio is a deeply layered character with an array of neck tattoos. He has a dark past with a prior criminal record, but claims he has put that behind him. He struggles to support his family, making his primary income as a tattoo artist, yet looking for additional better-paying honest work without any success. Ace’s jealousy towards Antonio leads his racist partner, Denny (Emory Cohen), to unjustly instigate an arrest and physically attack Antonio for no genuine reason, which begins a chain reaction. Antonio’s record is flagged by ICE, and he is threatened with deportation. It becomes clear that Antonio’s adopted parents, who soon abandoned him into the foster system, did not fill out the proper paperwork to make him a naturalized citizen. Despite being married and in the United States for over thirty years, Antonio still finds it difficult to check off the requirements necessary on a form to appeal. This ultimately sends Antonio into a deep downward spiral that is incredibly difficult to watch. News headlines relating to police brutality flashed through my mind while watching the plot unfold. The police have far too much power and free reign, even more so in the south where this film is set.
The visuals are an emotional feat of engrossing art. Constant cuts to flowing water imagery, which includes a recurring swamp, rain, and physical wetness, serve a twofold purpose. It serves to slowly unfurl flashbacks to a traumatizing moment in Antonio’s early childhood, and as a metaphor for the weight of impending doom threatening to drown him. All of this, combined with powerful performances and the tragedy of the plot, left me in tears by the end of the film.
Blue Bayou shines a light on a human rights crisis of which I had no knowledge: immigrant children adopted very young who then face deportation once they become of age. ICE clearly took advantage of a loophole of miscommunication or lack of knowledge from adopting families (in primarily the 1980s but still today according to the film) to remove any individual they choose from the country. It was disheartening to see the slideshow of real people at the end of the film. Most assume that illegal immigrants knowingly come into this country without regard for others. It appears it is possible that minors may go through their entire lives without knowing they are not legally in this country. To punish these individuals, instead of penalizing their parents who made the mistake, is unfair. This country’s stance on illegal immigration and support of ICE has far reaching effects that many, especially myself, have not considered. Justin Chon’s film has forced me to reconsider the political dilemma of illegal immigration from an entirely different perspective. It is impossible to ignore the plight of these people, and I hope legislation is soon passed to remedy this exploitative legal scenario.
Blue Bayou will rip out the audience’s collective heart and stomp on it, in theaters on September 17th.