Justin Chon’s Blue Bayou has a compelling message about a touchy political issue. In its final moments, it serves as an angry takedown on the country’s immigration policies. This is spliced with moments of melodrama and a generous heaping of subplots. The mix is often just a little off in this overflowing gumbo of storylines though it occasionally has the recipe right for an emotional payoff.
The director serves as star and writer here. Chon is Antonio LeBlanc and he’s lived just outside of New Orleans for his cognizant life. A tattoo artist with a criminal past, Antonio is on the right track with his pregnant wife Kathy (Alicia Vikander) and precious stepdaughter Jessie (Sydney Kowalske). He remembers little (or so he says) about his first years in South Korea before becoming a foster child stateside, which too is off limits for discussion.
Kathy’s ex (Mark O’Brien) is a police officer who wants more face time with Jessie. That domestic dynamic puts Antonio in jeopardy when an encounter calls his naturalization status into question. Facing deportation, Bayou shifts to showing the impossibly jumbled procedural morass to remain in the only home that Antonio has truly known.
Speaking of shifting and jumbling, there’s a lot of it in this screenplay. In addition to the looming court date, our protagonist strikes up a friendship with a cancer stricken Vietnamese woman (Lanh Dan Pham). Their interactions touchingly show Antonio a life of family and fellowship that’s often escaped him.
Regarding his past criminal offenses involving stolen motorcycles, Antonio’s quick need for cash has him pondering a return to that life. This causes major tension between him and Kathy. Vikander is quite good in the role. She’s not your typical suffering spouse. One gets the impression that she’s the one holding it all together for her small but growing family. The actress gets a lovely moment in which she croons the track serving as the title.
We delve into Antonio’s abusive past – both in Louisiana and overseas. He also happens to be good buds with an ICE agent (a hulking Tony Vitrano) who might be escorting him onto a plane at some point. There’s Kathy’s disapproving mother. In the film’s worst characterization, there’s the partner of Kathy’s former boyfriend. He’s played by Emory Cohen as an exaggerated coconut drink sipping buffoon who’s either being the main reason for Antonio’s troubles or talking about andouille sausage. Cohen’s role has about as much subtlety as J.W. Pepper, the loud and crude Bayou sheriff from Live and Let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun (Roger Moore’s first two James Bond features).
The heart of Blue Bayou is certainly well-placed and its urgent call for reform is best felt in the epilogue displaying real cases of injustice and the legal loopholes that caused them. In the midst of all the subplots and busy work of the script, Antonio’s connection with Jessie is the one that may get you misty eyed. Chon is passionate about his subject matter. Yet it frequently feels like the passion could have been harnessed into a more cohesive structure and not this unwieldy result.
**1/2 (out of four)