by Rob DiCristino
Watching Justin Chon’s Blue Bayou was a profound, overwhelming experience. There’s been so little to hold onto over these past twenty-odd months, hasn’t there? So few things that feel warm and reassuring. So few things that mark the passage of time in a familiar way. We’ve lost track of that time, letting weeks slide into months that become seasons that feel less distinct from one another the further we descend into mutually-assured environmental collapse. It’s impossible to calculate what we’ve truly lost in that existential haze or what feels worth carrying through it to the other side. Luckily, the kind folks at Focus Features (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Universal Pictures and its parent company, Comcast) are here to help. Lost though we may be as a civilization, Focus is firm in its commitment to cloying, manipulative festival weepies like Blue Bayou. It’s an Issue Film with a Powerful Lead Performance, a herald of the coming awards season, and a reminder that cinema is and will always be a competition.
Blue Bayou is an empty melodrama masquerading as a touching portrait of life across the tracks, a would-be Oscar contender drowning under the weight of its own naivety. Though Chon’s intentions are clearly good — the film ends with a montage of now-adult adoptees facing deportation after a lifetime in the United States — his characters are so inert and thinly-drawn that it almost feels disrespectful to those folks’ very real, very tragic suffering. On the surface, Antonio is a classic underdog: A Korean face paired with a southern accent, a thief who steals for noble reasons, and a stepfather struggling with his role in a young girl’s life. But Blue Bayou lets him off the hook at every turn, rarely forcing him to actually make constructive decisions that challenge his worldview or bring him out of his comfort zone. Every narrative speed bump is someone else’s fault — be it Kathy’s ex, his disgusting partner, irritable employers, or our unfeeling court system. Blue Bayou feels like a delicate character study, but it’s all a smokescreen.
*You didn’t think I’d do it, did you?