The gritty cinematography and compelling performances are the high points of “Blue Bayou,” a socially-conscious family immigration drama from writer, director, and actor Justin Chon. The heart of the film is its tragic slice of life story, but the finished product loses a great deal of emotional intensity due to its overly melodramatic, overstuffed screenplay.
Antonio (Chon) is a Korean adoptee living in a small Louisiana town on the bayou. He’s married to Kathy (Alicia Vikander) and is a loving step-dad to daughter Jessie (Sydney Kowalske). He struggles to make a better life for his family, but his past eventually catches up to him. When a technicality arises from his immigration status, Antonio faces deportation from the only country he has ever called home.
It’s a heartbreaking story, and is rooted in realism. Chon incorporated true stories of immigrants when crafting his script, which gives the film a sense of authenticity and relevancy. It’s slow moving for the first half until the real substance of story kicks in. It’s too bad that he stuffs the narrative with clunky fantasy elements and exaggerated familial turmoil, both of which come across as a contrived soap opera more than an important drama. There’s a sincerity to the filmmaking that’s commendable, however, and although it’s overdone, the film hits hard.
Chon chooses to shoot on 16mm film, which gives the film a natural, raw feel that is well-suited to the material. It’s a low-budget project that looks fantastic, with a vintage, auteur-like quality. The lead performances are strong and the characters sympathetic, which makes the timeliness of the story even more compelling.
Despite its shortcomings, “Blue Bayou” succeeds in presenting a deeper view of what it’s like to be an immigrant who has lived in the United States as long as he can remember, but is suddenly facing ejection at the hands of deportation laws. It’s a devastating look at the technicalities of what it really means to be an American.