~”We’re both strong. We’re both here.”
Blue Bayou tells the story of a Korean-born stepfather facing deportation in Louisiana. The film highlights the very real struggles of adoptees going through similar situations today. This is obviously a very personal project for its writer/director/star Justin Chon and that really comes though in the film, almost too much in some places.
As a native New Orleanian, I loved how he shot the city. There was a very beautiful and rich texture to the cinematography. It was grainy, obscured, blurred and gritty and really fit the setting like a glove. The film had a tremendous sense of space and atmosphere, and the sound mix was fantastic. Chon shoots beautiful close-ups, which is great because they highlighted some powerhouse performances. I can’t say enough about Justin Chon as Antonio Leblanc in this film. The New Orleans accent is hard and I thought he really pulled it off. It is amazing that he was nearly in every frame of this movie. I can’t imagine a harder film to have to star in AND direct. Given how emotionally taxing the role is, I don’t know how he pulled off both so effortlessly. It probably helps to have Alicia Vikander as a scene partner, who delivers one of the best performances of her career. She was so raw and present in each scene. I was most impressed at how understated she was, giving key scenes the emotional weight they deserved without drawing undue attention away from our protagonist. There is a subplot with a woman Antonio meets at the hospital that I really enjoyed. It was able to provide a unique and interesting perspective while also reframing the main conflict effectively.
As impressive as the direction was from a technical standpoint, the film was plagued by some of the issues you would find in a feature debut. Poignant scenes will very often linger into melodrama. There were numerous overlong scenes, lingering shots, and stylistic choices, where the direction drew attention to itself. These moments pulled me out of story, and this is evident in its near two hour runtime. I feel it could’ve benefited tremendously from a tighter edit. There is also a character that was so underwritten and poorly acted that it was surprising. He existed solely as a muddled mess of backcountry cop cliches and the entire character felt lazily shoehorned into the script to generate conflict where I don’t think it was really necessary.
Listen, being serenaded by Alicia Vikander is honestly worth the price of admission on its own, but Blue Bayou is a beautiful film and really humanizes an immigrant story that doesnt get told nearly enough. It features two of the best performances of the year, and intimately captures the New Orleans I remember. It is an emotionally resonant story and does a great job conveying it, but the lack of confidence in that fact makes the film feel more bloated and meandering than it likely intended.