Blue Bayou (2021) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): A sincere but contrived Southern adoptee drama

I feel rather ambivalent about Justin Chon’s latest film “Blue Bayou”, a small but intimate adoptee drama set in Louisiana. While it is surely sincere about its relevant main subject, the movie is also often hampered by its contrived and heavy-handed narrative, and I must confess that I was often distracted a lot by this serious flaw even while appreciating the considerable efforts from its cast and crew members.

The story mainly revolves around a Korean American adoptee named Antonio LeBlanc, who is played by Chon himself in the movie. Antonio has happily been living with his pregnant wife Kathy (Alicia Vikander) and his stepdaughter Jessie (Sydney Kowalske) in their shabby house located outside New Orleans, but he and his family have been in the need of more money than what he and Kathy have respectively earned outside, and he has been looking for the second job besides working at a local tattoo parlor. We see him trying his best during a brief job interview, but he is eventually rejected due to his minor criminal record, and we later learn that there is also another considerable disadvantage in his ongoing search for the second job.

Despite this continuing economic hardship of his, Antonio feels fine whenever he is with Kathy and Jessie in their home, and we get a series of sweet intimate moments as he interacts with Kathy or Jessie on the screen. As a little girl who is actually more matured than she seems on the surface, Jessie wonders whether her stepfather will pay less attention to her before when her stepsister is born, but Antonio warmly and tenderly reminds her that he will still love and care about her as before, and they later have a little exciting time together on his motorcycle.

In case of Kathy, she also loves and trusts Antonio a lot for many reasons. She appreciates how he has been a good husband and father to her and her daughter, and he is surely a better man than Jessie’s biological father Ace (Mark O’Brien), a local police officer who walked away from her and Kathy not long after Kathy was born. When Ace demands that he should see his daughter again, Kathy flatly rejects his demand mainly because Jessie does not want to see him at all, and we can easily sense a trouble coming from the distance.

And that expected trouble does come to Antonio and his family later when they happen to come across Ace and his racist partner at a local supermarket. Once Ace’s partner deliberately goads Antonio, the situation quickly becomes quite more serious, and that inevitably leads to Antonio being beaten and then arrested by Ace and his partner right in front of Kathy and Jessie.

At first, all Kathy will have to do is paying the bail for Antonio, but, alas, it turns out that Antonio is taken to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) just because he is not an American citizen technically. When he was adopted around 30 years ago, his adoptive parents did not naturalize him pursuant to Child Citizenship Act of 2000, so he is soon going to be deported just like many other similar American adoptees out there. Once he is released, Antonio and Kathy immediately consult with an experienced local lawyer, but the lawyer reminds them that there are not many options for them from the beginning. Even though they can pay for the legal service from their lawyer, there is not much chance for Antonio to remain in US, and he also may never be allowed to return to US in the worst case.

Now this is a solid setup for the personal drama mixed with important social issues, but Chon’s screenplay often goes astray during the rest of its story. There is a subplot involved with Antonio’s attempt to get the money for his lawyer by any means necessary, and that part feels rather jarring compared to the rest of the film. In case of another subplot involved with a Vietnamese American woman who happens to befriend him via their accidental encounter on the street, this part is riddled with several glaringly clumsily moments of symbolism, and we even get a blatant visual juxtaposition of life and death later in the movie.

In addition, the movie falters more during its last act, which is quite artificially melodramatic to say the least. Because I came to care about its main characters enough, I was quite annoyed with a number of contrived moments including the one involved with Ace’s partner, and that is why I only came to observe the finale from the distance while sensing its manipulative aspects. Sure, I became more aware of its social issues as watching many sad real-life cases presented right before the end credits, but I also felt considerable dissatisfaction with the movie itself, which could be better if it just focused on characters instead of pushing them into artificial melodrama to pull our heartstrings.

At least, the main cast members of the movie are solid on the whole. While Chon’s good performance humbly occupies the center, Alicia Vikander and young performer Sydney Kowalske are effortless as two most important people in Antonio’s life, and Vikander is especially wonderful when Kathy happens to sing in front of many others including her husband. While Altonio Jackson, Linh Dan Pham, and Vondie Curtis-Hall manage to bring some life and personality to their thankless supporting roles, Mark O’Brien and Emory Cohen are unfortunately stuck with their bland functional characters, and Cohen is particularly distracting in his rather blatant overacting.

Overall, “Blue Bayou” is surely well-intentioned but a bit too flawed to be compensated by its strong elements, and I hesitate to recommend it for that reason as well as the recent controversy over Chon’s artistic misappropriation in the movie (Here is the link to an article associated with that). Although he showed some promise via his first two films “Gook” (2017) and “Ms. Purple” (2019), Chon still needs to advance more in my inconsequential opinion, and I can only hope that he will move onto better things besides having some more artistic responsibility.

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