Rarely does a movie succeed in highlighting an ongoing political issue that affects millions of people through the lens of a personal story. Many films opt for the multi-protagonist approach, such as Crash, Traffic, or Requiem for a Dream. Having several characters as the main focus rather than one makes it easier to represent as many facets of the issue as possible. Written, directed and produced by lead actor Justin Chon (Twilight trilogy), Blue Bayou manages to capture the turbulence and obstacles that befall many U.S. immigrants through the eyes of just one character. Through Chon’s brilliant performance, we see him navigate circumstances both in and out of his control.
Blue Bayou centers around Antonio (Chon), a Korean immigrant with a daughter, Jessie (Sydney Kowalske), and pregnant wife Kathy (Alicia Vikander, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider). Antonio is a devoted father attempting to improve his family’s circumstances and overcome his past mistakes. Along the way, he strikes up a friendship with Parker (Linh Dan Pham, Mr. Nobody), a terminally ill woman from Vietnam who bonds with him over their shared journey to the U.S. However, friction between himself and Jessie’s biological father, a police officer named Ace (Mark O'Brien, Ready or Not), leads to Antonio being on the verge of deportation.
Blue Bayou skillfully displays the complexity of its characters. Rather than present them as purely good or evil, the film allows the audience to see them as three-dimensional. For instance, one of Antonio’s good friends is an ICE agent (Toby Vitrano) who frequents his tattoo parlor. Despite his job, the officer hangs out with and looks after several of his immigrant friends, subverting the expectation that he would harbor any hostility towards them. While Antonio is a family man that viewers are inclined to root for, he has a criminal record that he must reconcile. Despite appearing to be a villainous character, Ace simply wants to see his daughter Jessie and has no desire to negatively impact Antonio’s life. Though Kathy is a strong mother who loves Antonio fiercely, she struggles to get out from under her mother’s influence. Even Denny (Emory Cohen, The OA), Ace’s bigoted and morally bankrupt partner, views his actions through the lens of being a loyal friend. All of the major characters have well-established wants and tragic flaws that impact the chain of events in the story.
The complexity of the characters is mirrored by the convoluted rules around gaining U.S. citizenship, as displayed in several scenes between Antonio and his attorney, Barry Boucher (Vondie Curtis-Hall, Chicago Hope). Though being born in the U.S. grants you citizenship, arriving in the U.S. as a toddler does not. Despite being a child of adoption, Antonio is handcuffed by his specific circumstances.
Antonio’s back story reveals a dizzying upbringing in which he did not feel safe or supported. As the movie delves into his childhood, we further understand the strong bond he has with Jessie and Kathy, raising the stakes for what is about to unfold. As many natives’ exposure to the issue of immigration is merely through dehumanizing commentary, a story like Blue Bayou decreases the emotional distance many people have. While not seeking to impose a viewpoint, the film puts into perspective that immigrants are human beings with hopes, dreams, and loved ones to look after.
Tonally, Blue Bayou resembles a family drama of a similar name, Blue Valentine. The 2010 drama provides more of a non-linear storyline without a political backdrop, but it consists of similar family strife. Both films include a strong father-daughter relationship, a resentful and interfering ex-boyfriend, and a mother trying to escape the influence of her family to make her own decisions. Despite strong bonds, the desires of the families in both movies to stay together become threatened by outside forces and stressful circumstances. Though it tugs at the heart strings, Blue Bayou may be the family melodrama you’re in the mood for.