Writer/director/star Justin Chon’s “Blue Bayou” (now in theaters) possibly bites off more than it can chew. What it does well it does so exceedingly well. Some may see it as misery porn, but it contains far too much beauty (captured in gorgeous 16 mm no less!) to be minimized in such a fashion.
Chon stars as Antonio LeBlanc, a Korean American man who was adopted by a white American family when he was 3 years old in the late 1980s. Despite making some mistakes as a young man (namely two felonies for stealing motorcycles), Antonio has grown into a respectable member of his New Orleans community. He’s a talented tattoo artist, a loving husband to his pregnant nurse wife Kathy (Alicia Vikander) and a sweetly supportive stepfather to Jessie (Sydney Kowalske, HBO Max’s “Doom Patrol”).
Trouble enters the lives of the LeBlanc’s in the form of Ace (Mark O’Brien, “Ready or Not”) – a police officer, Kathy’s ex and Jessie’s birth father who abandoned them both. Ace is pissed that he’s not being granted visitation with Jessie, but she has no interest in seeing him. In an unfortunate stroke of bad luck, the LeBlanc’s run into Ace and his partner Denny (Emory Cohen) at the grocery store. Denny, feeling as though he’s acting in Ace’s best interest, accosts Antonio. Tensions escalate resulting in Denny beating Antonio with his baton and subsequently arresting him.
Turns out Antonio’s adoptive parents didn’t fill out his paperwork properly and he’s now being detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement under threat of deportation. Antonio and Kathy seek assistance from immigration attorney Barry Boucher (Vondie Curtis-Hall), but lack the funds to pay him prompting Antonio’s return to a life of crime.
“Blue Bayou” goes off on a series of tangents – many of them actually work wonderfully. There’s an incredibly tense and well-executed heist sequence. Antonio quickly develops a deep friendship with Vietnamese immigrant Parker Nguyen (Linh Dan Pham, “Ninja Assassin”), a woman with her own struggles who causes him to examine his own Asian identity.
There’s a lot about “Blue Bayou” that I absolutely admire. Chon, Vikander, Kowalske and Pham are all sensational. O’Brien does interesting work in a role with plenty of gray area. Speaking of gray area, the picture does a lot of interesting things with the representation of police and immigration officers. Antonio actually has a friend and customer called Merk (Toby Vitrano), who’s not only an ICE agent but is also completely sympathetic to Antonio’s plight. On the flip side of this coin is Cohen’s Denny. As likable as Cohen was in “Brooklyn,” he’s equally hissable here. Denny is probably the most despicable onscreen representation of law enforcement since Will Poulter’s Krauss in Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit.” Cohen’s a good actor, but his character is frustratingly one-note and serves little purpose beyond being an agent of chaos.
Sadly, prior to “Blue Bayou” I knew Chon best as a sidekick from the “Twilight” series and as the missing drunk buddy in the puerile comedy “21 & Over.” The picture not only shines a light on his immense talents as a writer, director and actor (I have every intention of catching up with Chon’s previous efforts “Gook” and “Ms. Purple”), but on the very real injustices currently being perpetrated against immigrants and adoptees. Thankfully, Congress passed the Child Citizenship Act back in 2000, which protects plenty of younger folks, but often leaves adoptees brought over in the ‘70s and ‘80s out in the cold. “Blue Bayou” is undeniably manipulative (What movie isn’t really?), but its manipulations will hopefully affect real world change that’ll better the lives of innocent victims.