The opening sequence of “Blue Bayou” is devastating in its simplicity. Antonio LeBlanc (Justin Chon, who wrote and directed the film as well) sits in a job interview. The voice offscreen asks him where he’s from. Antonio says a little north of New Orleans. The voice comes back: “No. Where are you from?” This is not new territory for Antonio. He’s been here before. He is basically forced to say, “Korea,” even though he was adopted and brought to America when he was three years old, has no ties to Korea, and considers himself an American. He is an American. “Blue Bayou” works best in small moments like this, where the point is made without having to hammer it home.
“Blue Bayou” is not subtle, but the issue at hand isn’t subtle either. People who were adopted into American families, sometimes 30, 40 years ago, are facing deportation in increasing numbers, a process that rips up families and shatters lives. These people are Americans. They have no connection to where they were born, no family there, nothing. The system is rigged against them. There is no appeal. There is no due process.
Antonio is a down-on-his-luck tattoo artist, living in New Orleans. His past is shady. He used to run with a crew of motorcycle thieves, and he racked up a couple of felonies. He’s clean now, but his past will be a huge problem once he faces deportation. He’s married to Kathy (Alicia Vikander), a nurse, who is pregnant with his child. They are also raising Jessie (Sydney Kowalske), Kathy’s daughter from a previous relationship. Jessie’s biological dad is a blue-eyed cop named Ace (Mark O’Brien), furious that his daughter is being “kept” from him. This powder-keg erupts during an altercation at a grocery store, when Ace’s partner (Emory Cohen)—a buffoonish caricature of a “bad cop”—looking to avenge his friend, attacks Antonio and drags him off to the local ICE facility.
Once the process starts, it’s almost impossible to stop. There are no appeals: who would one even appeal to? ICE is designed as an end-point, not a way-station. People vanish into ICE’s grip. Antonio was adopted when he was three years old. He has no ties to Korea. Turns out, though, his adopted parents didn’t fill out the citizenship papers, or didn’t file them properly. He’s screwed. Vondie Curtis-Hall plays a lawyer, whose retainer is a daunting $5,000. He knows his way around such cases. His outlook is not hopeful. He has almost no solutions.
“Blue Bayou” is sunk, on occasion, by its own symbolism, and how it wields said symbols. It’s not enough to use a symbol visually, and let the audience put two and two together. A character needs to have a long monologue where they explain the symbol and pontificate on how the symbol is relevant to the circumstances. This happens multiple times. It’s extremely heavy-handed. Chon intersperses artsy-looking dreamy fragments throughout, sudden flashes of a lake glowing blue, a woman seen from below the water, a flash of a face through a rainy window. In contrast to the mostly hand-held footage of the rest, these sequences should be more compelling than they are. Instead, they are self-conscious and super-imposed, an unnecessary cinematic “flex.”
In the middle of all of this, Antonio befriends a Vietnamese-American woman named Parker (the wonderful Linh Dan Pham). Parker pursues Antonio, inviting him to the monthly get-together at her house, as well as showing up at the tattoo parlor unexpectedly. Parker’s complex problems put her into “manic pixie dream girl” territory, albeit of the middle-aged variety. She is basically a magical being, who keeps showing up at exactly the right moment, with ready-made monologues about flowers and roots and fleur de lis, which she bestows upon Antonio, usually at sunset. In her time of crisis, she is 100% available to this brand new person she met yesterday. While Pham’s work is so lovely, this relationship is the most contrived element of “Blue Bayou.” The second most contrived element is a heist. Yes, there is a heist. Antonio’s daring getaway beggars belief. When compared to the stark spare dialogue in the opening scene, the sequence makes no sense.
The center of this story is the family unit of Kathy, Jessie, and Antonio, anguished at the breakup of their happy home, overwhelmed and intimidated by the looming bureaucracy of the United States government, who doesn’t care that Antonio has a baby on the way, that Antonio has lived here for almost 40 years. Vikander has never been better, and Chon is open and present, particularly so in the scenes with Kowalske.
The uncompromising ending is far more effective than any monologue about fleur de lis or dreamy shots of hands floating through blue water. The roll call of deported adoptees that follows is crushing. “Blue Bayou” knows that the cruelty is the point.