CAST: Justin Chon, Alicia Vikander, Altonio Jackson, Mark O’Brien, Linh Dan Pham, Sydney Kowalske, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Emory Cohen
RUNNING TIME: 117 mins
BASICALLY…: A Korean-American man (Chon) faces his dark past when he is threatened with deportation…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
“Heavy-handed” is the best phrase to describe writer-director-star Justin Chon’s tearjerker drama Blue Bayou, for while the intentions are perfectly noble, the overall execution wallows in stylish melodrama and surface-level commentary on xenophobic government policies and the immigration experience, all with far too much sugar and not enough nuance.
Chon stars as Antonio, a Korean-American man living in New Orleans with his wife Kathy (Alicia Vikander) and young stepdaughter Jessie (Sydney Kowalske), with a baby girl on the way. However, a run-in with some thuggish cops – including Kathy’s bitter ex-partner Ace (Mark O’Brien) – reveals that Antonio is technically an undocumented migrant, having been brought to America at a young age and not been properly processed through the system, and is now being threatened with permanent deportation. This causes Antonio to confront his dark past and criminal record, which as per a film of this dramatic quality is predictably rough and gritty, while trying his hardest to hold onto his family life in whatever ways he can.
This is the kind of politicised drama that goes way too hard when laying out its battlegrounds; the noble, flawed protagonist will be charming and lovable to a fault, whereas the antagonists in the dual form of this harsh system and these racist, intimidating cops will be written to be so nasty and unforgiving that they sometimes don’t seem human. Of course, there’s plenty of good reason to be distrustful of certain law enforcement figures nowadays, but Blue Bayou opts for the most extreme examples purely for emotional impact, and because of that the noble arguments being made seem disappointingly two-dimensional. Chon’s writing lays the commentary on all too thick, with each moment of symbolism feeling way too obvious and lacking in much-needed subtlety, conveying its deep political message not with thoughtful conversation but melodramatic scenes designed solely to tug at the heartstrings. The movie tries to give a voice to the other side, with one of the main character’s friends happening to be a sympathetic ICE agent, and Mark O’Brien’s character going through his own arc, but more often or not they are overshadowed with the heavy-handedness of Chon’s approach.
Such an approach includes a style that mixes the celestial tone of a Terrence Malick movie and the hand-held grittiness of Beasts of the Southern Wild, which in and of itself tends to get in the way of the overall storytelling. You can feel that Chon’s direction is going for something along the lines of a John Cassavettes movie in how natural a lot of the dialogue is delivered and the ways in which certain scenes are stitched together (the overall look of the movie also feels like it’s being shown on a 35mm reel of film), but there is also a number of flashy editing tricks and cinematography that opts for close-up intensity which equally distract from what the narrative is trying to achieve, leaving Chon to seem less constrained as a visual filmmaker and go for a style that only further emphasises the unsubtle nature of his script.
He does, however, get some strong performances out of his cast, least of all himself in a role that allows him to exhume charm and stability as a heavily flawed protagonist, though again it seems like a means to present an extreme in this heavy-handed study. He shares good scenes with Alicia Vikander and Sydney Kowalske as wife and stepdaughter respectively, but often you can also feel Chon’s penchant for melodrama seep back in as he introduces a dying Vietnamese woman for him to befriend and confide in the unfair political system, which seem like remnants from another script entirely and less like a true challenge for him as a performer. As things move further and further towards an eventual climax, however, you start to notice the performances being more and more fine-tuned to a point where it’s practically asking you upfront to start crying at their emotional turns. They’re not bad performances, but they are ones that perhaps become more and more self-aware in the lead-up to its bittersweet conclusion, and again you’re more distracted by how melodramatic some of them are being rather than saving that emotion for how the actual narrative is playing out.
It’s difficult to not understand what Chon was going for with Blue Bayou, and to a point you do get where he’s coming from in terms of the themes he wants to portray as well as the prejudice that certain people sadly go through in modern society. However, no matter how good the intentions, the overall execution is way too heavy-handed and leaning too far into extreme territories that it becomes hard to look upon this film as a genuine study of some very vital topics, and not an exercise in pretension that Chon unfortunately teeters dangerously close towards.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Blue Bayou sees writer-director-star Justin Chon go in with noble intentions about highlighting some heart-breaking themes and topics, but his execution is too heavy-handed and extreme to properly engage.