Absorbing, emotional, frustrating, inspiring, sad, compelling and anchored by two of the best performances of the year, “Blue Bayou” is a drama about immigration and identity, most obviously, but it is also about how sometimes the strongest families are the ones we choose — or the ones who choose us.
The writer-director and star of the film is Justin Chon, the onetime regular in the “Twilight” film series who is unrecognizable here as a New Orleans tattoo artist who was born in South Korea, came to the United States when he was just 3 and now faces deportation because his adopted parents didn’t cross the t’s and dot the i’s.
To fully appreciate his physical transformation, check out the slim, clean-cut Chon just last year in Wayne Wang’s San Francisco-shot family drama, “Coming Home Again.” What a contrast: His Antonio LeBlanc in “Blue Bayou” is prolifically tattooed, several pounds heavier and loaded with emotional baggage.
He’s married to Kathy (Oscar winner Alicia Vikander, who does a killer Linda Ronstadt impression in singing the title song) and has enthusiastically embraced her daughter from a previous relationship, Jessie (Sydney Kowalske). Kathy is pregnant with their child, and Antonio needs a better job. But he’s an ex-con, part of a motorcycle-stealing ring years earlier.
Moreover, he’s Asian, and that seems to mark him as suspicious by many in the community.
“LeBlanc? Is that your name? Where you from?” asks a job interviewer, and when told he grew up near Baton Rouge, the interviewer sneers, “No, where were you born?”
Kathy’s mother, Dawn (Geraldine Singer), clearly despises Antonio, both for his appearance and his rap sheet. When he’s out with Jessie by himself, onlookers stare.
One night when the family is at a grocery store, they are confronted by Jessie’s father, Ace (Mark O’Brien), a New Orleans cop who has suddenly decided, years after abandoning Kathy and Jessie, that he wants to be in Jessie’s life. When Antonio gets into a physical confrontation instigated by Ace’s racist partner Denny (Emory Cohen), Antonio is arrested.
Though the charge is minor and later dropped, it is discovered that Antonio’s adoptive parents, who are no longer in his life, never went through the steps of obtaining American citizenship for Antonio. He’s an illegal immigrant and now faces deportation to a country he has never known, which speaks a language he doesn’t understand.
What makes “Blue Bayou” terrific is that while the screws tighten for Antonio and Kathy, forcing some difficult choices, Chon’s camera floats. This is his third film as director (his first two, “Gook” and “Ms. Purple,” were well-received films exploring Korean American identity in Chon’s hometown of Los Angeles), and here he creates sequences of visual poetry worthy of Terrence Malick.
While he never forgets the plot, Chon slips through eddies and backwater channels to explore a human connection: Antonio’s intense bond with Jessie, who considers him his real father; Antonio’s chance meeting with a Vietnamese-born cancer patient (Linh-Dan Pham), who opens the door for him to accept his Korean roots; even the uneasy evolution of Ace and his attitude toward Kathy, Antonio and Jessie.
“Blue Bayou” is not perfect — there are a couple of bits that don’t ring true, but these are minor quibbles. Vikander’s meaty performance, which elevates the standard wife-trying-to-keep-the-family-together role well above cliche, and Chon’s intense triple-threat commitment, help make it a must-see.
Over the closing credits, Chon includes photos of actual Asian adoptees who have been forced back to a homeland, or whose cases are pending, thanks to what many on both sides of the political aisle believe is a broken immigration system that badly needs reform. They and Antonio are like the fleur-de-lis, a symbol of New Orleans but also water lilies that float, seemingly rootless, forever searching for their place.
N“Blue Bayou”: Drama. Starring Justin Chon, Alicia Vikander and Mark O’Brien. Directed by Justin Chon. (R. 112 minutes.) In theaters Friday, Sept. 17.
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Review: Justin Chon and Alicia Vikander are triumphant in ‘Blue Bayou,’ a drama of immigration and identity