Producers: Charles D. King, Kim Roth, Poppy Hanks and Justin Chon Director: Justin Chon Screenplay: Justin Chon Cast: Justin Chon, Alicia Vikander, Mark O’Brien, Linh-Dan Pham, Sydney Kowalske, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Emory Cohen, Geraldine Singer, Toby Vitrano, Altonio Jackson, Truong Quang Tran, Sage Kim Gray, Susan McPhail and Jacci Gresham Distributor: Focus Features
An issues film with a capital “I,” Justin Chon’s “Blue Bayou” has the sense of urgency befitting its status as an activist statement, but its fevered melodramatics undercut the message rather than enhancing it.
Writer-director Justin Chon (“Ms. Purple”), channeling the morose vibe of the Roy Orbison song that gives the film its title, also stars as Antonio LeBlanc, a New Orleans tattoo artist. Though he has a criminal past (and still hangs out occasionally with friends from it), he’s settled down as husband to Kathy (Alicia Vikander) and loving stepfather to precocious Jessie (Sydney Kowalske), who dotes on him. Kathy, a nurse, is pregnant with his child.
But all is not well. Antonio, though determined to go straight, has money trouble; he might lose his spot in the tattoo parlor. He’s also a source of irritation to Ace (Mark O’Brien), Jessie’s biological father, a cop who abandoned her and Kathy but now wants to connect with the daughter who’s never known him despite her mother’s determination to keep them apart.
Still, Antonio is hopeful until a run-in with Ace’s brutal partner Denny (Emory Cohen), which results in his arrest and a fateful revelation—though he came to the United States when he was only three and was adopted by a foster family, they never formally went through a naturalization process for him. Under the law, therefore, Antonio is in the country illegally, and is scheduled for deportation.
He and Kathy consult lawyer Barry Boucher (Vondie Curtis-Hall), who advises them that an appeal would be costly not only monetarily, but because if he loses he will never be able to return from Korea to the U.S. To get the money for the court case, Antonio joins his old gang to steal motorcycles in a daring raid on a dealership. But Boucher tells him that his only chance to win his appeal will be to have witnesses to support him—most particularly his adoptive mother (Susan McPhail), from whom he’s long been estranged because of the abuse he suffered at her dead husband’s hand. And nasty Denny intervenes to ensure that the decision will go against him in any event.
Meanwhile, Antonio has made a connection with Parker (Linh-Dan Pham), a Vietnamese immigrant terminally ill with cancer. He gives her a tattoo of a fleur-de-lis, and she responds by inviting him and his family to a celebration where Kathy is induced to sing for the crowd and Antonio meets Parker’s father, who points out the similarities in their immigrant experience. Parker’s story is obviously meant to provide a counterpoint to Antonio’s, a fact brought home rather ham-fistedly when she and Kathy wind up in the hospital at the same time.
There’s no ignoring the essential point of “Blue Bayou”—the injustice in the treatment of “illegals” brought into the country as children but now threatened with deportation, an attitude most clearly embodied in Cohen’s crudely nefarious (and badly overacted) Denny. The point is softened somewhat by the insertion of another character—an ICE officer (Toby Vitrano) sympathetic to Antonio’s plight, but the closing credits, with photos of immigrants with stories similar to Antonio’s—bluntly reemphasize it.
The film represents a sincere plea for understanding and empathy in immigration policy, but an abundance of melodramatic twists and strenuously poetic flourishes dilute its potency; the final half-hour, in which abrupt twists pile up in an effort to provide satisfying closure to a whole slew of plot threads, comes off as especially forced.
Nonetheless Chon proves more effective as actor rather than writer-director, delivering an appealing mixture of warmth and desperation as a man driven to extremes in trying to do the right thing to overcome apparently intractable obstacles to happiness. The rest of the adult cast, apart from Cohen offer happily restrained turns, with particularly touching work from Pham and McPhail. Kowalske avoids overdoing it as young Jessie, which indicates that as a director Chon can manage a light touch.
“Blue Bayou” was made on a modest budget and frankly looks it, but Bo Koung Shin’s production design and the cinematography by Matthew Chuang and Ante Cheng provide a grittily realistic ambience. Reynolds Barney’s editing, however, could have used greater precision (and a bit more energy—the picture does run a trifle long).
The result is a film with an admirable purpose and some strong elements, but one that’s also overwritten and didactic.