‘Blue Bayou’s’ immigrant tale turns from naturalism to melodrama
Originally Published in The Washington Post
Michael O’ Sullivan – September 15, 2021
From left: Sydney Kowalske, Justin Chon and Alicia Vikander in “Blue Bayou.” (Focus Features)
Chon plays Antonio, who lives with his wife Kathy (Alicia Vikander) and his stepdaughter Jessie (an adorable Sydney Kowalske). Kathy and Antonio are expecting their own child, but Jessie sees Antonio as her “real” daddy — and vice versa — because the girl’s biological father, a police officer named Ace (Mark O’Brien), has until recently been completely out of the picture. As the tale gets underway, Ace is seeking visitation, so far unsuccessfully.
The deportation process kicks in after an over-the-top encounter at the grocery store between Antonio and Ace’s partner (a florid caricature of racism delivered by Emory Cohen) leads to Antonio’s arrest. Antonio’s prior convictions for theft weigh heavily against him, but the family sets out to assemble a lineup of character witnesses who might possibly sway a sympathetic judge.
Chon is low-key great here, as is Vikander, whose only misstep is her overly polished, overly professional delivery of the Roy Orbison song that lends the film its title, in the context of a backyard party. And Antonio’s chance encounter with a Vietnamese immigrant and terminal cancer patient (Linh Dan Pham), which leads to a sweet friendship — and a couple of symbolic tattoos — unspools with great sweetness and sensitivity.
But Chon’s mounting narrative miscalculations keep piling up: Antonio has lied about his past in foster care, it turns out, and dark secrets emerge; he slips up in his attempt to stay on the straight and narrow path when he learns what his attorney’s fees will be; and a savage beating — on the eve of his legal hearing, no less — threatens his future.
There are other examples of superfluous storytelling — told both in flashback to Korea and in the present — but it’s pointless to enumerate them all.
It’s a shame, really, because a story about adoptees facing the prospect of — or already having suffered — deportation is one worth telling. On-screen closing titles cite statistics, and show some of the names and faces of those who are — or who have been — in predicaments like Antonio’s. “Blue Bayou” strikes a nerve, of that there is no doubt. But then it keeps poking at it, pointlessly.
R.?At area theaters. Contains strong language throughout and some violence. 117 minutes.
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