Friday, September 17, 2021


 by Rob DiCristino

Because Focus gotta Focus.

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.
Writer/director Chon leads the film as Antonio LeBlanc, a hard-scrabble New Orleans tattoo artist whose past is as murky as his career prospects. A multiple felon with a baby on the way, Antonio just can’t seem to get ahead. Only his wife and stepdaughter (Alicia Vikander and Sydney Kowalske as Kathy and Jesse, respectively) are on his side, but even they’re beginning to feel the pressure. A bad situation gets worse when two cops — one of whom is Jesse’s birth father, Ace (Mark O’Brien) — assault Antonio and turn him over to ICE, who quickly discover that his adoption paperwork from the 1980s is invalid and set him for deportation. While he scrambles to earn enough money for proper legal representation, he encounters Parker (Linh Dan Pham), a terminally-ill woman whose vibrant immigrant family reminds Antonio of his painful childhood in foster care. As his court date nears, Antonio must confront the demons of his past and reassure his family — and, in turn, himself — that he is steadfast, reliable, and worthy of their love.

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.
Still, Chon does deliver the aforementioned Powerful Lead Performance, imbuing Antonio with a playful soul that feels as naturalistic as possible under the circumstances. Ante Cheng and Matthew Chuang’s cinematography is layered and rich, avoiding the washed-out cheapness of trailercore like Above Suspicion. Alicia Vikander (of whom I am a great Vifander*) gives a predictably strong supporting performance as the wife who’s had just about enough. Again, Blue Bayou is shaped like a winner. Its heart’s in the right place. But just when it gets close to a legitimate examination of its various conflicts — like when Ace threatens to expose Antonio’s recent motorcycle theft — it bails, inexplicably having Ace show up to court in Antonio’s corner and insisting that what’s good for him is good for his daughter. The film then hopes you’ll forget this, staging an airport confrontation in which Antonio needlessly creates new conflicts in order to cross a thematic bridge he didn’t need to build in the first place. It’s a mess.
The important thing, though, is that Blue Bayou looks and feels like an indie that comes out in September and stirs up some awards buzz. It’ll float around The Discourse through the holidays and appear on several “underrated” lists after underperforming at the Golden Globes and falling out of the major races. Chon will do interviews that highlight the severity of his project’s message, clips of Linh Dan Pham standing in the rain will appear in David Ehrlich’s end-of-the-year countdown video, and everyone will do their best to avoid talking about what an awful movie title Blue Bayou really is. And honestly, that’s okay. We need Also Rans like Blue Bayou to pad-out the schedule and make other movies look better. It’s not a cynical production; it’s just a bit out of its depth. And I’m not beating up on it because the people who made it are evil, but instead because its paint-by-numbers histrionics expose just how much we take genuinely compelling cinema for granted. Let’s remember that this Oscar season, shall we?

*You didn’t think I’d do it, did you?

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