Review: ‘Blue Bayou’ (2021), starring Justin Chon and Alicia Vikander

September 16, 2021

by Carla Hay

Alicia Vikander, Sydney Kowalske and Justin Chon in “Blue Bayou” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

“Blue Bayou” (2021)

Directed by Justin Chon

Culture Representation: Taking place in St. Francisville, Louisiana, the dramatic film “Blue Bayou” features a racially diverse cast of characters (Asian, white, African American and Latino) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 37-year-old husband/father, who was adopted as a child from Korea by Americans—but he never officially became a U.S. citizen—faces legal problems and police brutality while his American wife is due to give birth to another child. 

Culture Audience: “Blue Bayou” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in movies that tackle issues of parenthood, immigration, national/ethnic identity, racism, police brutality and health problems.

Sydney Kowalske, Justin Chon and Alicia Vikander in “Blue Bayou” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

“Blue Bayou” is filled with so many heavy issues, the movie occasionally veers into melodrama territory. However, the cast members embody their characters with such an emotional authenticity that they transcend the movie’s minor flaws. “Blue Bayou” ultimately gives a searing and heartbreaking portrayal of lives damaged by bad decisions and an often-unforgiving government system.

Justin Chon is the writer, director and protagonist of “Blue Bayou,” which tells the story of what happens when a Korean American’s life is turned upside down when his past catches up to him at a time when he’s trying to get his life back on track. In the movie, Chon portrays Antonio LeBlanc, a tattoo artist who lives and works in the Baton Rouge suburb of St. Francisville, Louisiana. Antonio, who is 37, is happily married to feisty and fearless Kathy LeBlanc (played by Alicia Vikander), who is pregnant with her and Antonio’s first biological child together. They already know that the child will be a girl.

Kathy has a precocious 7-year-old daughter named Jessie (played by Sydney Kowalske) from a previous relationship. Antonio has adopted Jessie, who has a very close and loving relationship with both Antonio and Kathy. However, Jessie has a special bond with Antonio, who is a lot like a kid at heart. Kathy is the parent who is more likely to be the family disciplinarian and planner.

For example, an early scene in the movie shows that Antonio, who’s supposed to drive Jessie to school, impulsively lets Jessie skip school one day to spend the day with him. One of the things that Antonio does on this day is take Jessie to his favorite meditative hangout—a secluded swamp area—to show her where he likes to spend some alone time. (This swamp area ends up becoming a pivotal location in the story.) And the movie’s opening scene shows that Antonio has brought Jessie with him to a job interview.

Antonio is the only father whom Jessie really knows. Jessie’s biological father is a St. Francisville police officer named Ace (played by Mark O’Brien), an ex-lover of Kathy’s who abandoned Kathy when she was pregnant with Jessie. For years, Ace didn’t want anything to do with Jessie and Kathy. But recently, Ace has had a change of heart and is trying to get more visitation time with Jessie.

Kathy is very bitter and angry about Ace being a deadbeat dad. She’s extremely reluctant to let Ace spend time with Jessie because Kathy believes that Ace will break Jessie’s heart. Jessie also doesn’t seem very interested in spending time with Ace, who is essentially a stranger to her. Ace has offered to start paying child support, but Kathy doesn’t want his money. She’s a hospital worker but is currently on maternity leave.

Kathy uses Jessie’s apathy toward Ace as a reason to try to limit the time that Ace can spend with Jessie. When Kathy tells Ace that Jessie doesn’t want to spend more time with Ace, he doesn’t believe Kathy. He is growing increasingly impatient with Kathy stonewalling him. Ace has been hinting that he’ll take this matter to family court if he doesn’t get to spend more time with Jessie. In other words, things could get ugly.

Kathy’s widowed mother Dawn (played by Geraldine Singer), who lives near Kathy and Antonio, is often available to help with raising Jessie. Antonio has told Kathy that his adoptive parents are deceased, and he knows nothing about his biological parents. Dawn has reluctantly accepted Antonio as her son-in-law, because he treats his family with love and respect. However, Dawn gives the impression that she would have preferred that Kathy’s husband be a more “respectable” member of society.

With another child about to be born into his family, Antonio has been looking for a new job that pays more than his current salary as a tattoo artist in a small tattoo shop. It’s later revealed that he’s gotten behind on payments for his tattoo station fees, and his boss Ms. Jacci (played by real-life New Orleans tattoo artist Jacci Gresham) will not advance him any part of his salary. Antonio gets along well with his boss and co-workers, but job at the tattoo shop won’t be enough to support a family of four people.

Antonio’s job interview that opens the movie realistically depicts a lot of the obstacles that Antonio faces when he’s looking for work. He’s an undocumented immigrant. He has a prison record, having been incarcerated for stealing motorcycles, but he hasn’t gotten into trouble since he got out of prison. Antonio is also illiterate, which is something that he doesn’t tell a lot of people unless they need to know. In addition, Antonio has very large tattoos on his neck and arms, thereby automatically disqualifying him for jobs that won’t hire people with noticeable tattoos.

The male interviewer (who is not shown on screen, but is presumably white) is immediately confused by Antonio’s very French last name, which doesn’t match with the type of last name that a lot of people would expect Asians to have. Antonio’s speaking accent is very much from Louisiana, but the interviewer still asks Antonio if Antonio is American. The interviewer’s attitude could be inferred as being racist, because it’s unlikely that Antonio would be asked if he’s American if he were white. Antonio explains that he was born in Korea and was adopted as a toddler by American parents, who raised him in Louisiana.

A bigger issue for Antonio in this interview is explaining his prison record. Although he was in prison for a non-violent crime, he’s still a convicted felon, which is a stigma that makes it hard to find a job with many employers. Antonio says that he’s turned his life around, but the interviewer isn’t willing to take a risk on hiring a convicted felon. When the interviewer finds out that Antonio currently has a job at a tattoo shop, the interviewer tells Antonio that Antonio is better off staying at his current job.

Getting rejected by this interviewer becomes the least of Antonio’s problems. Not long after this interview, Antonio and Kathy are with Jessie in a grocery store when Antonio and Kathy start arguing about Ace having more time with Jessie. Antonio thinks that Ace should be given a chance to redeem himself, while Kathy is against the idea. She’s also upset with Antonio when she finds out that he let Jessie skip school.

It just so happens that Ace and his racist, bullying cop partner Denny (played by Emory Cohen) are in the grocery store too while they’re on patrol duty. Ace and Denny see Antonio and Kathy arguing. Denny, who knows about Ace’s personal problems with Kathy, immediately recognizes Kathy and Antonio. Denny gets very aggressive with Antonio. Because Antonio didn’t break any laws, he starts to walk away with Kathy.

But that isn’t good enough for Denny, who is hell-bent on arresting Antonio. Things quickly spiral out of control, a scuffle ensues, and the next thing you know, Antonio is arrested. This arrest sets off a chain of events that forever alters the lives of Antonio and his family. Without giving away too much information, it’s enough to say that Denny finds out that Antonio is an undocumented immigrant. Antonio and Kathy end up hiring a lawyer named Barry Boucher (played by Vondie Curtis Hall), who is sympathetic but doesn’t gloss over the harsh realities of what could happen to Antonio.

Antonio is bailed out of jail, but he faces mounting legal fees and overwhelming financial pressures, while Kathy is due to give birth in the near future. One day, while Antonio is in a hospital waiting room while Kathy is having an obstetric exam, he randomly meets a woman who’s about the same age named Parker Nguyen (played by Linh Dan Pham) near a vending machine, which is malfunctioning by not dispensing an item after receiving the payment. Parker and Antonio figure out how to get the item from the machine, and then they go their separate ways.

However, it won’t be the last time that Parker and Antonio see each other. In the midst of Antonio’s turmoil, Parker and Antonio become friends with each other. Parker is also an immigrant (she’s originally from Vietnam), and she has a secret that she eventually reveals to Antonio. Her secret gives him a different perspective on the problems that he’s experiencing.

“Blue Bayou” has ebbs and flows and can be messy—just like life. Therefore, some viewers might lose patience with the way that the movie has a tendency to wander and then get snapped back into suspenseful melodrama. For the most part, the movie depicts people and situations as realistically as possible. The family dynamics between Antonio, Kathy and Jessie are among the highlights of the “Blue Bayou.” The unexpected friendship between Antonio and Parker is also one of the best things about the movie.

However, the movie stumbles somewhat in the last 15 minutes, which crams in plot twists and a “race against time” cliché that might be too contrived for some viewers to take. Despite these plot manipulations, “Blue Bayou” remains authentic in portraying an American immigrant experience that is often not depicted in a narrative feature film: What happens in the U.S. to people who were adopted as children from other countries, and their adoptive parents didn’t take the necessary steps to make these children U.S. citizens?

When Antonio married Kathy, who is a U.S. citizen, the couple did not file the required paperwork to make him a legal resident alien by marriage. A U.S. law passed in 2000 allowed people adopted from other countries as children to become U.S. citizens. However, the law doesn’t apply to people, such as Antonio, who were adopted before the year 2000. “Blue Bayou” has some emotional scenes showing Antonio’s turmoil over wondering what circumstances led to his adoption and why his adoptive parents never bothered to make him a U.S. citizen.

“Blue Bayou” gets its title from a poignant scene in the film where Antonio, Kathy and Jessie have been invited to a backyard barbecue held by Parker’s family. During the get-together, Kathy gets up and sings a karaoke version of Linda Ronstadt’s 1977 hit “Blue Bayou.” The song’s lyrics have added meaning, considering what Antonio and his family are going through at the time this event takes place. (And yes, Vikander does her own singing in the movie. She’s a very good singer with a smoky tone to her voice.)

Because “Blue Bayou” is a story of a family that’s overwhelmed with several big problems within a short period of time, the movie can come across as one big pile-on of drama. But within the context of all of these troubles and agitations are a lot of uncomfortable truths that are faced by many people in real life. What “Blue Bayou” demonstrates so beautifully is that amid all the trauma and stresses, the love of family can provide a resilience that no law can break.

Focus Features will release “Blue Bayou” in select U.S. cinemas on September 17, 2021.