It seems that every summer there is a pleasant surprise of a movie. One that seems to come out of nowhere, unheralded and undermarketed, that sneaks onto our collective radar. The summer sleeper hit.
Blue Bayou would fit that description.
It’s that low-budget, independent film that we love to see from time to time. The little movie that could. Last year’s example would have been Nomadland, a quirky, offbeat little film that proceeded to blow everyone away before garnering several Oscars.
Justin Chon is the immensely talented filmmaker at the heart of Blue Bayou. He wrote it. He directed it. And he stars as Antonio, the story’s main character.
Chon’s powerful connection to Antonio is evident in the movie’s opening scene in which the camera unflinchingly stares at Antonio as he undergoes a job interview with his young daughter Jessie (Sydney Kowalske) sitting on his lap.
Antonio is a likeable young man of Korean descent, a blue-collar kind of a guy looking for a higher paying job than the one he currently has as a tattoo artist. He explains that he and his wife Kathy (Alicia Vikander) are expecting a baby. He promises to be a hard worker. His demeanor makes it clear that he means what he says.
But the off-camera interviewer brings up an ugly detail from Antonio’s past, that he is a convicted felon, arrested for stealing a motorcycle when he was a teenager. The interview abruptly ends, and we step into the life of a struggling young man with the best of intentions, dealing with a mistake from his past that seems to doom the prospects for his future.
We’ve seen stories like this before. But this time, it’s the tale of an immigrant who came to America as a baby, underwent several adoptions including a particularly abusive one that left deep scars, leaving him to fend for himself and make a bad, crippling decision or two along the way.
To his credit, Justin Chon pulls you deep into Antonio’s life in all its complexity and detail. We find that his wife and daughter were the victims of an ugly, failed marriage in which they were painfully abandoned. Antonio is their knight in shining armor who loves them both and will do anything to ensure their survival and happiness.
It’s a difficult road, due to the fact that the “ex” is a local police officer who has it out for Antonio. He is a hateful man with a sadistic cop partner out to make Antonio’s life a living hell.
Sparing the details, they manage to orchestrate an incident one day in a supermarket that results in Antonio’s arrest and conviction which will lead to his deportation unless his lawyer can convince a judge to review the case. But that lawyer costs money ($5000) that Antonio doesn’t have. And so begins a series of tough choices, made out of love and desperation that ramp up the drama in a tale that seems perfectly believable and real.
Like many independent films, Blue Bayou is character-driven. To Justin Chon’s credit, all the characters are fully developed and wonderfully portrayed. There is texture and substance. Notably, the performance of Linh-Dan Pham as Parker Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant struggling with a terminal illness whose life intersects with Antonio’s personal struggle.
Alicia Vikander brings her impressive skills to the role of Kathy, Antonio’s loving, supportive wife who cherishes Antonio’s unwavering support and boundless love and affection above all else. But even their solid connection becomes challenged as the story unfolds and develops. As in life, things can sometimes take a nasty turn and begin to unravel despite the very best of intentions.
The twists and turns are masterfully handled. There is always a human element that makes the story unpredictable and real. It keeps the audience on its toes.
About the only criticism of Blue Bayou is that it might get a little caught up in the surprise element of the story in the final reel or two. More specifically, it feels like the story ends a half dozen times, adding twist upon twist to what seemed like a series of conclusions. It might be a little too much.
But that is a minor glitch in a movie that otherwise has so much to offer. As mentioned, it is a well-crafted piece of work from an abundantly talented young filmmaker/actor. I’d even suggest that it is Oscar- worthy despite a few flaws. I’m speaking of the writing, direction, acting and cinematography.
To its credit, Blue Bayou is not only an emotional contemporary drama, it’s a socially relevant statement reflecting a real-life tragedy of immigrants who are brought to this country as children only to face deportation later in life. The final credits reinforce that the problem is very real.
It’s the kind of news story that would be easy to dismiss or disregard in the steady flow of investigative reports that permeate the media these days. A movie like Blue Bayou really drives the point home with an emotional resonance that sticks. And can hopefully make a difference.
Blue Bayou opens in theaters September 17.