Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

by Jacob Beeson

Justin Chon’s latest festival vehicle that debuted at Cannes arrived this weekend in hopes putting issues of adoptees being deported into the spotlight. Chon has built his directing career on stories with social commentary the Asian-American communities within LA, however Chon takes his story deep within the bayou of Louisiana. Having the film take place in the south is an interesting choice given that Chon is an LA native and his co-star Alicia Vikander is Swedish and has lived in Europe her entire life. Their accents don’t work for much of the film as their native accents poke through quite a bit, yet Chon’s direction is still able to ground the film enough to pull you into the gripping story.

Chon’s decision to star along with his writing directing roles gives the film an autobiographical feel that seems incredibly self-indulgent when you realize it isn’t. The film follows Chon’s Antonio LeBlanc as he’s preparing to welcome another child into his home (his first) by finding another job. The entire interview is done in one shot of Antonio, who’s joined by his step-daughter Jessie (Sydney Kowalski) (though their relationship is never stated this way), but the shot sets the groundwork for the visual style of the film and how the camera often lingers on characters, especially Antonio. Alongside this opening, there’s a prologue that functions as an overture.

Justin Chon and Sydney Kowalski in Blue Bayou (2021). Focus Features.

Chon channels a nostalgic look and feel to the film by choosing to have cinematographers Ante Cheng and Matthew Chuang shoot the film on 16mm film. Though flashbacks that initially feel like visual metaphors are shot with a cooler blue tint, the colors feel so much warmer than they would on any other format. It’s an ironic choice given the films dark subject matter that’s either going to have you shed at least one tear by the end of the film or depressed afterwards. Though the film has already had suggestions of micro aggressions toward Antonio and setup the stakes of having to provide for his family, the film turns grave when after a police altercation.

Alicia Vikander and Justin Chon in Blue Bayou (2021). Focus Features.

The police altercation is a typical trope and a far too often occurrence in real life, but Chon packs more meaning into this altercation. From this altercation that adds yet another item to his record comes a blindsided deportation order that no one could have seen coming. Though this plot point complicates the story, it’s what it introduces besides the plot point that complicates the story: characters. Antonio’s foil, Ace (Mark O’Brien) is Jessie’s biological father and one of the cops that Antonio is arrested by. Antonio and Ace both make some pretty bone-headed decisions at first glance but given the circumstances from their pasts, those decisions are the only decisions those characters could have made throughout the film.

Alicia Vikander, Sydney Kowalski and Justin Chon in Blue Bayou (2021). Focus Features.

The rest of the film attempts to unpack the social issues that churn out of this story in hopes of teaching the audience about these mind-numbingly stupid laws in hopes that they will be changed. Chon’s artistic lens clashes when the climax gets far too convoluted for its own good, showing Chon’s hand as a social activist more than an artist. These two worlds for Chong don’t work together all that well, though his social activism is deeply admirable. The clearly kind-hearted nature of the filmmaker shows through character redemptions that seem radical and borderline offensive for some (I don’t fall into that category but there’s been some controversy).

Blue Bayou attempts to tackle identity in complex ways through family dynamics that aren’t as black and white as the nuclear family. When the social aspect of deportation enters the story, the film takes on a much bigger beast than it’s equipped to handle. Visually, the film wants to explore very interior struggles and traumas than dictate more than just one’s life and succeeds for the most part without being too obscure for any audience to pick up. It’s impressive and emotional to go through, even if the climax fumbles over itself so check it out and form your own opinion!

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