Skip to main content

'Blue Bayou' Review: A shining character study nearly lost to murky depths

Excellent filmmaking threatens to collapse under the weight of an ambitious screenplay.

Alicia Vikander, Sydney Kowalske, and Justin Chon in 'Blue Bayou'.
(Image: © Focus Features)

Our Verdict

It’s hard not to respect just how big of a swing 'Blue Bayou' is, even if it doesn’t quite have the focus to follow through.

For

  • Excellent emotional setpieces that really pack an emotional gut punch.
  • Chon is delivering an amazingly nuanced performance.
  • Meditative moments shine bright.

Against

  • The screenplay covers so much emotional territory as to become unfocused.
  • The humanistic portrayal of ICE and police is surprisingly generous in light of the direct criticism the film levies against them.

It’s hard not to appreciate the ambition of a film like Blue Bayou. In many respects, writer, director, and star Justin Chon has crafted an extremely well-realized character portrait, creating such a holistic vision of the life of his protagonist that it’s tempting to call the film epic for its aspirational scope. There are moments of genuinely heartbreaking visual storytelling on display here, as emotional beats wait behind corners to gut punch you again and again, particularly in a climax where numerous disparate plot threads converge. But for as compellingly complex as the intricacies of a life may be, that isn’t necessarily the same as crafting a coherent narrative from those pieces, and Blue Bayou is so overwritten that its humanism becomes a meandering distraction from its compelling social commentary.

Blue Bayou is being sold as a Big Issue movie focused on the deportation of adopted immigrants who have no emotional or familial connection to their country of origin, and that marketing push is something of a half-truth. Chon stars as Antonio, a Korean-American living in New Orleans with his wife Kathy (Alicia Vikander) and stepdaughter Jessie (Sydney Kowalske) as they anticipate the arrival of a newborn. When an encounter with Kathy’s ex, local police officer Ace (Mark O’Brien), escalates to a violent arrest, Antonio is tagged by ICE as an illegal immigrant, despite Antonio having lived in the United States since he was three years old. Though this seems like the set-up for a maudlin court procedural about the injustice of deporting adoptees, the film slowly unravels into an examination of the factors that made Antonio who he is over the course of a lifetime where he has felt displaced in the only home he has ever known.

Taken in isolation, many scenes and motifs in Blue Bayou are exemplary for how they delve into the contradictions of adopted immigrant experience, from the subtle racism of Kathy’s disapproving mother, to the perpetual abandonment he experienced as a child, to the desperate turn to criminality that hallmarks an inescapable cycle of poverty, all in a country that was supposed to be a better life than the one his birth mother forcefully separated him from. The camera will linger on Antonio as he processes the disparate pieces of his life and how each led him to a situation where he is unmoored from culture and place, with only the tenuous grip of his own adopted family keeping him from floating off into nihilism and despair, symbolized through dream sequences of drowning and isolation in the serenity of a lonely bog. These are powerful sequences that work excellently in isolation, and they are only enhanced when the film veers into full melodrama as the mounting pressures cause Antonio and Kathy to examine the underlying foundations of their relationship.

What a shame it is, then, that the film is so holistic of Antonio’s life, so determined to give as complete a portrait of this character as possible, that it bounces around characters and subplots that, while effective in their own right, add up to less than the sum of their parts. A friendship with a Vietnamese-American cancer patient (Linh-Dan Pham) explores the difference between emigrating with your biological family as opposed to being adopted into a white family. Antonio’s history as a victim of child abuse and his youthful mistakes as a motorcycle thief bear scrutiny. Ace’s relationship with his estranged daughter becomes a counterpoint to Antonio’s loving support, itself a twisted inversion of Antonio’s own adoption with Jessie’s emotions pulled apart in the middle. Then, of course, there’s the legal battle underlying the meandering plotlines, which takes a surprisingly humanizing approach to individual police and ICE agents without ever figuring out how to differentiate the people from the system they willingly enforce. Save for the misguided humanism, these are mostly elements that are effectively conveyed in the moment, but the breadth of characters on display sacrifices their depth in favor of being mere reflections of Antonio’s emotional state and history.

Blue Bayou is caught between the tensions of being a very effective character study and a sweeping examination of common experiences for immigrant adoptees. It’s compelling as either meditative contemplation of the individual or as high drama in service to social messaging, but never at the same time or in complement to the other disparate half. Compelling avenues of storytelling are inevitably dropped because the weight of the story as a whole threatens to collapse and obscure good intentions and incredibly solid fundamentals. The fact that the story remains coherent in a runtime of two hours is practically a miracle, and one can’t help but wonder if it wouldn’t have been better suited to a limited series treatment, where the overlapping, episodic entanglement of these characters could serve more than just a solipsistic examination of the lead character. It’s hard not to respect just how big of a swing Blue Bayou is, even if it doesn’t quite have the focus to follow through.

Blue Bayou opens in theaters on September 17, 2021.