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.

Review: ‘Parallel’ (2020), starring Aml Ameen, Martin Wallström, Georgia King, Mark O’Brien, Alyssa Diaz, David Harewood and Kathleen Quinlan

December 28, 2020

by Carla Hay

Aml Ameen, Martin Wallström, Georgia King and Mark O’Brien in “Parallel” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Parallel” (2020)

Directed by Isaac Ezban

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Seattle area, the sci-fi drama “Parallel” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black and Hispanic people) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Four housemates discover that their house has a mysterious mirror that leads to a parallel world where every person on Earth has an alternative look-alike counterpart in the parallel world, which operates at a slower time pace than Earth does.

Culture Audience: “Parallel” will appeal primarily to people who like twist-filled science fiction where the characters in the story have ethical dilemmas.

Martin Wallström and Georgia King in “Parallel” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

What would you do if you could take knowledge from a parallel world that’s almost identical to Earth and bring that knowledge to Earth? And how would it affect your life and the lives of others? Those are the major questions behind the plot and character actions of the sci-fi dramatic thriller “Parallel,” which brings suspenseful and philosophical moments to a flawed but overall entertaining story.

Directed by Isaac Ezban and written by Scott Blaszak, “Parallel” has a few plot holes that aren’t resolved by the end of the movie. However, these unanswered questions don’t take away from the overall storyline, which is held together by the entirely believable premise that people will often go to extremes if they think there’s a shortcut to what they think will make them happy. “Parallel” throws in the complications of greed and loyalty to demonstrate that this shortcut to happiness isn’t as simple as it might seem.

The story in “Parallel” essentially revolves around four friends/co-workers in their mid-to-late 20s who live together in a house in the Seattle area. (“Parallel” was actually filmed in Vancouver.) Noel Eggerton (played by Martin Wallström) is the group’s “alpha male” who think he’s the smartest one and always acts as if he should be the one to make the most important decisions for the group. Devin Parkes (played by Aml Ameen) is also very intelligent, but he’s a lot more sensitive and compassionate than Noel. Leena Fortier (played by Georgia King) is a free-spirited artist who used to be Noel’s girlfriend, but she decided that it wasn’t a good idea to mix business with pleasure. Josh Resig (played by Mark O’Brien) is a laid-back, creative type who has a mischievous side to him.

The four pals work together as the founders of a start-up tech company that’s trying to sell an app where people can rent private parking space to the public. (The name of the company is never mentioned in the movie.) Their goal is to eventually incorporate the app into technology for voice-activated cars.

Noel, Devin and Josh are the main developers of the app, while Leena and Josh share artwork duties, with Leena being the lead artist. Noel and Devin are in charge of sales and marketing. So far, the four friends haven’t had much success with the business. Money is running out, and the four friends might be evicted from their home if they can no longer pay their rent and other bills.

Near the beginning of the film, Noel and Devin are seen giving a sales pitch for the parking app in a boardroom full of bored and skeptical businesspeople. The leader of this business meeting asks if Noel and Devin can have the app ready by a deadline that Noel and Devin admit that won’t be able to meet. To Noel and Devin’s dismay, they find out that an acquaintance of theirs named Seth has put in a competitive bid with the company to develop a similar app. Seth has guaranteed that he can make the company’s deadline.

Adding insult to injury, Seth had previously interviewed to work at the four friends’ start-up company. But instead, Seth took the intellectual property information that he found out during the interview and used it to develop a similar app. Seth’s backstabbing move is an indication of the four friends’ lack of business savvy that they didn’t patent their idea and make Seth sign a non-disclosure/non-compete agreement when he interviewed for a job with their company.

The four friends had been counting on selling the app to the company that has now rejected them. Without this sale, they have reached the dejected conclusion that they can no longer afford to pay their house rent, and their start-up will probably have to go out of business. To drown their sorrows, the four pals go out for drinks at a local bar. Devin tells the other three that he’s thinking of taking another job.

One of the employees of the bar is a bartender named Carmen (played by Alyssa Diaz), who is somewhat aware that Josh has a big crush on her. However, Carmen has a boyfriend, so Josh doesn’t want to make any moves on her. Carmen is friendly to Josh, but she’s not flirtatious. This love triangle ends up being a pivotal subplot to the story.

When the four housemates go home, they find out through a series of random circumstances that the house has a hidden room that contains a mysterious full-length mirror. And they get very freaked out when they see that the mirror’s glass is actually more like a liquid substance. When someone puts a hand through the “liquid glass,” it disappears into a void, but the person is able to pull the hand out of the mirror.

Devin puts his hand in the mirror and describes the feeling as a “warm tingle, like your foot’s asleep.” And when Devin video records the mirror on his phone, he sees that the video shows the room without the four friends in it. Finally, curiosity gets the better of Josh. Before his housemates can stop him, Josh declares before he jumps completely into the mirror: “Neil Armstrong’s got nothing on me!”

What Josh finds on the other side of the mirror is a parallel world where he sees alternative versions of himself, Noel, Devin and Leena in the same-looking house. The four “alternatives” don’t see him though. The four friends in the parallel world have the same names as their Earth counterparts and look exactly like their Earth counterparts. Noel watches as the four “alternative” friends spend time in the backyard for a barbecue, which is something that the real Josh, Noel, Devin and Leena are not currently doing on Earth.

Josh makes his way back to the mirror and returns to Earth in the house’s secret room, where he tells his three friends what he saw. Of course, they’re very shocked at first. But when they see that Josh doesn’t seem to have any side effects from his trip, they decide to get more information about this parallel world. Through a few experimental trips back to the parallel world, the four friends find out that one minute on Earth equals three hours in the parallel world.

In this secret room that they’ve discovered on Earth, the four friends also find diaries from the house’s previous occupant: a hermit named Marissa Widdicomb (played by Kathleen Quinlan, in a cameo), who mysteriously disappeared before the four friends moved into the house. By reading Marissa’s diaries, the four friends discover that Marissa also found out about the secret powers of the mirror. Marissa was a widow grieving over her dead husband, and she decided to find out if her husband was still alive in the parallel world. She tracked down her alternative self in the parallel world, began stalking her alternative self, and found out that her husband’s alternative self was alive and well.

Marissa became so obsessed with wanting her husband back that she planned to murder her alternative self and secretly take her place. This murder is shown at the very beginning of “Parallel.” Viewers find out later in the movie who the people are in this scene and why this murder was committed. In her diaries, Marissa cautions against anyone coming face-to-face with their alternative or “alt” self because it will probably lead to the death of one of the selves.

Despite the tricky and possibly dangerous outcomes of messing with fate in two different worlds, it isn’t long before the four friends decide it’s worth the risk to use this mirror portal to their advantage. Because they’re desperate to sell their app to the company that rejected them, the four friends come up with a scheme to finish the app in the parallel world in order to beat Seth in the deadline. They call the mission “Operation Fuck Seth.”

Sure enough, the plan works. They finish the app before Seth does, and the sale is made. The four friends celebrate by driving to Seth’s house and gloating to him by telling him the news. Seth is incredulous that they made the deadline before he did. And he becomes increasingly suspicious when he sees the four friends’ fortunes go from bad to “too good to be true.”

That’s because greed inevitably takes over, especially with Noel, Leena and Josh. At first, they decide to go to the parallel world, pretend to be their alternative selves, and go on spending sprees by buying things that the alternative selves will have to pay for but the real selves on Earth can enjoy. (There’s a montage of all the gifts that the greedy pals buy for themselves and bring back to Earth.)

And then, two of the friends decide to take knowledge from the parallel world that isn’t known yet on Earth, and use that knowledge to get rich and famous. Noel decides to steal technology ideas, while Leena (who has always dreamed of being the type of celebrated artist who has her own exhibit at an art gallery) steals art ideas. They both get a lot of praise, recognition and financial rewards for their stolen ideas that they pass off as their own.

Josh doesn’t get as deep into stealing as Noel and Leena do, but Josh doesn’t disapprove of what they’re doing either. Josh’s main concern is how to win over Carmen. Meanwhile, Devin is the only one of the four friends who has a conscience and refuses to steal ideas from the parallel world. He warns his friends that they could face serious consequences if they’re caught, but his warnings go unheeded.

Devin has a reason for feeling as guilty as he does: It has to do with his father Martin Parkes (played by David Harewood) and something that haunts Devin that’s explained in the movie but won’t be revealed in this review. It’s enough to say that although Devin won’t steal ideas from the parallel world, he does have a very big motive to use the parallel world to possibly change things about his life.

One of the four friends ends up becoming the worst of the group (it’s easy to predict which one) and there are several things that happen in the story that indeed become life-or-death situations. “Parallel” somewhat devolves into the type of formulaic thriller where certain people turn against each other and loyalties are tested. However, there’s still enough suspense in the story to keep viewers interested in what will happen and how the story will end.

To distinguish between scenes on Earth and scenes in the parallel world, “Parallel” uses different techniques from cinematographer Karim Hussain. The scenes on Earth have a warmer hue, with a lot of gold and brown coloring. The scenes in the parallel world have a bluish glow, with tilted camera angles and slightly warped effects on the camera lens. Viewers who are paying attention will easily be able to notice the differences between these two worlds.

Out of the four actors playing the main characters in “Parallel,” Ameen does the best in portraying a well-rounded person. And that’s mainly because his Devin character is the only one who has a significant backstory. King also fares quite well in portraying Leena, who at times appears to be complicated because she could go either way in some of the decisions that she has to make.

“Parallel” clearly has influences from “The Twilight Zone” and taps into age-old questions about how much in life happens because of fate versus free will. The ending of the movie is a jumbled rush that could have been improved by answering a few questions that remain unanswered. However, the movie is enough of an interesting sci-fi jaunt that’s worth watching if viewers don’t mind keeping track of characters that have look-alike counterparts in a parallel world.

Vertical Entertainment released “Parallel” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on December 11, 2020.

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