There are films we watch to escape from reality, and there are others we watch to confront the injustices of the world we live in. Blue Bayou is a film that does not flinch in its quest to force viewers to see people who are often rendered invisible in society. It is by turns a slow character study and an expression of rage. It resists easy answers in favor of presenting the world as it is, begging the audience to fight for a better one. With Blue Bayou, writer/director/star Justin Chon tells an urgent and ultimately wrenching story anchored by brilliant performances and stunning cinematography.
Chon stars as Antonio LeBlanc, a tattoo artist whose main concern at the start of the film is picking up a second job to support his wife Kathy (Alicia Vikander), his stepdaughter Jessie (Sydney Kowalske), and their unborn child. Antonio faces tough breaks at every turn, from overt racism to employers turning him down over his past criminal record. The bright spot in his life is the love he shares with Kathy and Jessie, who he considers to be his daughter. However, not everyone feels that Jessie belongs with Antonio. Skeptical townspeople raise their eyebrows at an Asian man and a white child. Kathy’s mother’s derision towards Antonio’s tattoos and career is clear. Kathy’s ex and Jessie’s father Ace (Mark O’Brien), a police officer in their small town, decides he wants to be part of Jessie’s life after years of distance. This kicks off a chain of events that unravels all their lives when it is discovered that despite being adopted at age three and living in the United States the majority of his life, Antonio is not technically an American citizen and faces deportation. It’s an all too familiar situation for thousands of international adoptees, and Antonio and Kathy must fight to keep their found family together in the face of a system designed to set up insurmountable obstacles at every turn.
Blue Bayou’s biggest strength is in its performances. Chon’s Antonio feels authentic, from his accent to his movements and small character choices. Fans of his prior acting work will not recognize him here. Antonio is not perfect, but he’s trying, and through his performance Chon brings the audience inside his head. Vikander elevates what could be a typical supporting wife role into a woman with hidden depths, desperate to protect their family yet not being able to understand Antonio’s experience. Kowalske is heartbreaking in her film debut, with one scene towards the end coming as an absolute gut punch for the audience. O’Brien adds nuance to Ace as he undergoes changes of his own over the course of the film. The only misfire is Emory Cohen as Ace’s racist partner Denny. Denny is abhorrent and might have been an interesting character, but Cohen manages to hit every cliché possible, making Denny slip over the line into caricature. It stands out because the other performances are so natural from the start. Thankfully, this does not take away from the film as a whole and in fact highlights just how good Chon, Vikander, O’Brien, and the rest of the ensemble are at creating a believable world of characters.
Aside from Chon’s talents as an actor, his direction creates a visually arresting film. The cinematography by Matthew Chuang and Ante Cheng is gorgeous, with blue tinted shots of the bayou and sunset cruises on riverboats contrasting with the concrete jails and lawyer’s offices as Antonio fights to stay with his family. Chon allows the camera to linger on each actor without cutting for a reaction shot, a choice that only emphasizes the quality of each performance. As a writer, he weaponizes narrative expectations, often setting up potential endings that feel like something we’ve seen before, then flipping the script.
Chon clearly wants the audience to feel frustrated and angry, and he succeeds. You can feel his passion for telling this story in every shot, with the final montage before the credits being several images of real individuals in Antonio’s situation and the outcome of their cases. That passion and drive to show the human cost behind flawed immigration policy in the U.S. is palpable throughout, and it’s a testament to Chon’s talent that Blue Bayou succeeds as both a critique of the system and as a story. It’s messy and raw and difficult to watch, yet you can’t look away.
Blue Bayou is in theaters now. For showtimes, head to Focus Features’ website.