We’re still here.
Pink sweat saturates a tattered t-shirt, adrenaline and anxiety coursing through desperate veins as shaking hands fumble keys. An engine roars to life and rubber burns on the asphalt, a fleeting catharsis whistles through the night air in the streets of New Orleans. The warm wind caresses skin and glides through hair, connected to the endless sky above. That momentary bliss, the rush of the speed and the powerful rumble of the engine as lights fly by and what’s behind you slowly disappears into the horizon. It feels like freedom, but some things can’t be outrun. A burden steeped in trauma, systemic injustice, and broken institutions is constantly creeping in, inescapable, inevitable.
That’s what Justin Chon’s Blue Bayou is, rich atmosphere laced with painful inevitability, an ever palpable tension permeating every moment of dialogue as one moment bears down, a looming cloud casting a dark shadow. It opens with a charged moment of Chon’s Antonio LeBlanc, a Korean immigrant and ex-felon, suffering a series of prejudicial questions during a job interview. Desperately hoping to provide for his wife, step-daughter, and unborn child, he pleads for work, but is dispassionately denied. This moment, evocative of a larger systemic issue, sets the tone for Blue Bayou‘s galvanizing depiction of LeBlanc, adopted by Louisiana foster parents over 30 years ago and now facing deportation at the hands of a cruel legal loophole.
After an inciting incident rife with the unjust power dynamics of law enforcement, the film slowly builds towards an explosive finale, a decision carefully balanced on a steep precipice. Along the way, its insistence on a herculean effort to tackle a vast array of topics becomes overwrought and undercooked, a struggle to pack the punch it truly hopes to. Burning fuel constantly darting back and forth between quiet, intimate moments of incisive brilliance and explosively evocative scenes of brutal physicality, it fails to find a consistent thread to make its points effectively. Its dissonance is challenging to reconcile with – it’s hard to not feel endeared to LeBlanc’s scruffy beard and thick drawl as he dotes on his sweet daughter and adoring wife (an outstanding Alicia Vikander), but the narrative enters a territory that begins to lose grip on its critical commentary.
The crux of this narrative failure stems from the film’s tumultuous and disparate relationship with law enforcement. The law is constantly in LeBlanc’s orbit, he’s close friends with suave, tattooed ICE agent Mark, and the emotionally unavailable father of his wife’s child, Ace, is a New Orleans PD officer. With these institutions intrinsically ingrained into the story, it brings a litany of conflicting thoughts. Its lack of teeth towards the hateful existence of ICE itself while putting in so much effort to humanize one of its agents feels strange, especially when contrasted with the cartoonishly villainous inflection it gives to Ace’s partner Denny, who is dead set on exacting violent revenge for LeBlanc “robbing” Ace of the opportunity to have a family. Each encounter with these institutions results in scenes of extreme, heightened emotion, and often includes visceral violence as a means to reinforce its statements on America’s treatment of immigrants. The overexerted melodrama of each of these encounters undermines the quiet, pensive melancholy the rest of the film builds as LeBlanc attempts to reconcile with his identity, his existence in a broken system, and his traumatic past.
When given room to breathe, the film is beautiful, its gorgeous 16mm photography is packed with vibrant color and its frantically kinetic handheld camerawork invokes the works of Wong Kar-wai, complete with resplendent, hazy step-printing. Meditative sequences on the shore of the azure Mississippi or in the lush, marshy grasses of the bayou grant pitch perfect atmosphere to LeBlanc’s internal struggle as he’s forcefully wrenched from his American roots. The film’s grander emotional resonance, found within its many poignant moments and passionate performances, shines beyond its overwrought extremities, and despite the self-inflicted erosion of its believability, it never fails to be a chilling reminder of just how close to reality much of it is. There may be a few too many things contributing to the painful melancholy of Chon’s film, but the strong voice in the center of it all is one that deserves to be heard.