Justin Chon’s overcranked but achingly heartfelt “Blue Bayou” is a case-study in how issue-driven melodramas are a double-edged sword. If done well, these tear-jerkers can emotionally galvanize audiences into grappling with the sort of social injustice that people tend to cry over in the dark of a theater and then leave behind when they re-emerge into the light of day. If done poorly, they risk glazing an urgent problem with a gloss of untruth, and making an all-too-real tragedy from our own backyard feel like the kind of thing that only happens in the movies. An eye-opening sob-fest that eventually loses sight of its everyday tragedy behind a thick veil of tears, “Blue Bayou” is such an uncommonly lucid example of this phenomenon because it manages to cut both ways at the same time.
The crux of the film’s story hinges on the immigration status of this country’s foreign-born adoptees; a bill was passed in the year 2000 that granted them American citizenship, but that long-overdue change didn’t retroactively apply to anyone who was brought to this country before that. It’s a legal quirk so illogical that it’s never even occurred to New Orleans tattoo artist Antonio LeBlanc (Chon, directing himself in a tender performance that effectively clashes the Asianness of his appearance with the gumbo-thick drawl of an accent that’s seldom attached to it on screen), but also one so devastating that it soon threatens to destroy his entire family — or at least the parts of it that he chose for himself after being neglected and worse by the white foster couple who spirited him away from Korea when he was only three years old.
We meet Antonio in a static long-take that instantly conveys a lifetime of fragmented self-identity, as he sits for another futile job interview with his precocious white step-daughter Jessie (Sydney Kowalske) at his side and swallows the familiar indignity of being asked about where he’s really from (the soft intimacy of Ante Cheng and Matthew Chuang’s Super 16mm cinematography lends a personal sting to an encounter that countless people from Asian diasporas have experienced in this country regardless of where they were born). The question is all the more disorienting for Antonio because he has exactly one waterlogged memory from his time in Korea and zero other Asian people in his life; that most white strangers refuse to accept his Americanness seems to produce an almost subliminal dysphoria in his mind.
But Antonio doesn’t seem to dwell on such things. His beautiful, flinty Southern bride Kathy (Alicia Vikander, bringing as much integrity as possible to a suffering wife part) is pregnant with their first child together, and while he’ll have to get a second job to help pay for their growing family, at least he’s graduated from his old gig of stealing motorcycles. In a touch that proves typical of a film that gilds the fleur-de-lis every chance it gets, Antonio is so personally at peace with his American identity that his best friend Merk is an ICE agent (the hulking yet winsome Toby Vitrano, who Chon discovered behind the counter of a Biloxi vitamin store).
Alas, Kathy’s ex (Mark O’Brien as Ace) is law enforcement as well, and — in his own messed up way — he shares his estranged daughter’s concerns over how the new baby might shake things up. Jessie is worried that having a hapa sibling around the house will delegitimize her bone-deep father-daughter bond with Antonio, while Ace sees the pregnancy as the final nail in the coffin of the family that he never fought to keep. His virulently racist, virulently insecure, virulently everything beat partner Denny won’t let that happen. Played by a larger-than-life Emory Cohen — who brings Derek Cianfrance-levels of cartoonish affectation to a movie that desperately needs a less obvious villain — Denny picks a fight with Antonio, and uses it as an excuse to arrange for his deportation.
This is already enough material to sustain the florid legal melodrama that ensues from there as Antonio and Kathy fight — perhaps in vain — to stop the American court system from cruelly railroading another immigrant out of this country. But Chon, a prolific firebrand of a filmmaker who’s leveraged his stardom from the “Twilight” saga into an exciting career on both sides of the camera, has always preferred to counter stories about marginalized people (“Gook,” “Ms. Purple”) with a more is more approach. “Blue Bayou” is Chon’s biggest film by a considerable measure, and while it unfolds with a greater sweep, confidence, and intensity of feeling than any of his previous work, it also lays it on thicker than ever before.
That tactic eventually crescendos into an ending so over-the-top that it plays like a caricature of the movie so far, but its pitfalls are evident in small pockets throughout the rest of the story as well, as “Blue Bayou” stagnates in some of the places where it ought to have soared. The most unfortunate example of that is tethered to a subplot involving a Vietnamese-American woman named Parker (a wonderfully understated Linh-Dan Pham) whose chance encounter with Antonio illuminates his understanding of the broader Asian-American experience and allows him to see his own problems from a new perspective. Parker is dying from cancer because somebody has to be in a melodrama like this, and while her lovely dynamic with Antonio is layered enough to support a melodrama of its own — and leads to a wig-related grace note that perfectly crystalizes Chon’s still-untapped potential — it also becomes the straw that breaks the camel’s back in a story that already includes a daring heist sequence, a Bon Iver needle drop, a potential infanticide, and a shouty fight about child abuse that quotes “Good Will Hunting” almost verbatim. Every misjudged element weakens the others, until even the sweetest metaphors (e.g. Parker’s observation that fleur-de-lis “look like they have no roots, but cannot survive without them”) land with the brute force of a hammer.
And yet, there’s a lot to like in “Blue Bayou,” and not only because there’s such an absurd amount of stuff on offer. If Chon’s overwrought direction is sometimes the film’s biggest weakness, his deeply felt performance is often its biggest asset; it’s as if he’s trying to weigh this movie down with one foot as he pumps it full of helium with the other, but Antonio is nevertheless a beautifully realized character whose raw hurt is as palpable as the sacrifices he makes to contain it.
Schmaltzy and improbable as this fictional story gets, Chon’s leading turn never allows you to fully disengage from the fact that actual stories like it are happening every day of the week for no other reason than because we allow them to. That sense of reality is bolstered by the film’s exquisite sense of place (Antonio and Kathy’s shotgun house paints a vivid scene), costume design (including one very loaded cream-white hanbok), and casting (Vikander may not be a singer, but her reluctant performance of the title song is a jaw-dropper). It’s through these subtler flourishes that “Blue Bayou” allows you to sink into its depths, and — if only despite itself — leaves you lingeringly heartbroken that so many people have been allowed to drown there.
“Blue Bayou” premiered at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. Focus Features will release it in U.S. theaters on Friday, September 17.