Although the Twilight saga was widely derided by critics and people outside the target demographic, that franchise has produced a lot of talent. Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart have gone on to become respected actors who work across studio and independent productions, Anna Kendrick is a full-fledged star and an Oscar nominee, and Justin Chon (who played Eric) established himself as a writer/director to watch with 2017's Gook. Chon's latest, Blue Bayou, will help cement that status. To be honest, this is a very downbeat story, but it's also one that I've found myself liking more and more as I've thought about it over the last several days. Despite a few melodramatic sections, Chon has his finger on something poignant.
He plays Antonio, a Korean-American man who was adopted and brought to this country as a small child. He works in a tattoo parlor to support his pregnant wife Kathy (Alicia Vikander) and stepdaughter Jessie (Sydney Kowalske). Money is tight, and Jessie's cop father Ace (Mark O'Brien) is a jerk, so things don't always run smoothly. The love between the family members keeps them all going when things get rough.
After being arrested for a spat with Ace's partner, Antonio is hit with the devastating news that he might be deported. Despite having lived in America the vast majority of his life, his adoptive parents never submitted the paperwork to formally request citizenship. Now time is running out. An expensive lawyer (Vondie Curtis-Hall) tries to help him find the grounds to fight it, and a cancer-stricken customer named Parker (Linh Dam Phan) offers support and inspiration.
Blue Bayou is not the first movie to take on the issue of unfair deportations, which makes its events feel a little familiar at times. The idea of examining adoption-related deportations is new, though. The film expresses righteous anger at the idea that children -- who have no say in the matter, much less an understanding of the citizenship process – are unknowingly put in such a vulnerable position. Watching Antonio struggle to pay the lawyer and find a way to stay with his family offers several heart-wrenching moments. Chon does nice, layered work in showing not only the increasing fear Antonio has, but also how he stoically tries to reassure Kathy that everything will be okay. It's impossible not to feel for this guy.
Those are the best scenes in Blue Bayou. Whenever the story sticks to Antonio and Kathy attempting to cope with the situation, it has a punch. You can feel the movie's passion in wanting to address a problem that has affected – and is currently affecting – people just like our hero. Stuff not directly pertaining to that is where it stumbles. Scenes with Parker feel forced in, and the confrontations with Ace's partner are manipulations to get the plot where it needs to go. These parts are heavy-handed, and could have either been cut out altogether or handled with a lighter touch.
Overall, there's more here that's strong than weak. Despite a few flaws, Blue Bayou does mostly address its themes meaningfully. And while the ending sure isn't subtle, it's effective anyway. Thanks to magnificent performances from Chon and Vikander, along with important subject matter, this is an emotional drama that stays with you.
out of four
Blue Bayou is rated R for language throughout and some violence. The running time is 1 hour and 52 minutes.