A lot or a little?
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Blue Bayou is a searing, gut-wrenching indictment of the U.S. immigration system. It follows a loving Asian American husband and stepfather who's facing deportation because of paperwork and policy mistakes in the international adoption process. Written, directed, and produced by star Justin Chon, the movie focuses on the unique experiences of international adoptees who were brought to the United States as infants and children but aren't full citizens, through no fault of their own. Expect a lot of strong language (mostly "f--k," "s--t," and "bitch"), some scenes of violence (including at the hands of law enforcement), and discussion of domestic abuse. There's also upsetting family separation, a suicide attempt, and a character who's dying of cancer. Adults smoke (both cigarettes and weed) and drink.
What's the story?
BLUE BAYOU begins with New Orleans-based tattoo artist Antonio LeBlanc (Justin Chon) looking for a second job without any luck due to his nonviolent criminal record. He needs another gig to cover his tattoo parlor fees, as well as to provide for his pregnant wife, Kathy (Alicia Vikander), and young stepdaughter, Jessie (Sydney Kowalske). Antonio was adopted from Korea at age 3 by a White couple, and he's got little connection to his Korean birth culture. When Kathy's ex, Ace (Mark O'Brien) -- a New Orleans Police Department officer who left the family years earlier but now wants a relationship with Jessie -- and his partner, Denny (Emory Cohen), bump into the LeBlancs at a store and initiate a confrontation, Antonio ends up arrested. What neither Antonio nor Kathy understands is that his late adoptive parents never correctly processed him for citizenship, so he's technically undocumented. And so he's turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for deportation. Suddenly the LeBlancs are forced to face the possibility that Antonio could be sent back to South Korea. Meanwhile, Antonio meets Parker (Linh Dan Pham), a kind Vietnamese American woman who reminds him of the motherly and family bonds he missed as a child.
Is it any good?
This poignant, powerful family drama eventually slips into melodrama but, thanks to standout performances, remains an important and authentic immigration narrative. Chon continues to center Korean American perspectives in his films by tackling a little-known group of people: international adoptees who aren't technically citizens because their adoptive parents (and adoption agencies) failed to properly file the paperwork. Chon purposely doesn't make Antonio perfect. Yes, he has a nonviolent criminal record (which is the reason he's fast-tracked for deportation), but he's so much more than that. He's a loving, thoughtful, and playful stepfather to his beloved stepdaughter and a doting husband. The first half of Blue Bayou feels very naturalistic, with scenes of domestic life that almost seem improvised (particularly all of Chon and Kowalske's moments on-screen).
A story in which class and race intertwine, Blue Bayou veers a bit into melodrama once Antonio is beaten and arrested. Cohen's cop character, Denny, delights in being sadistic, believing himself untouchable thanks to the thin blue line. O'Brien's Ace, however, is portrayed and written with more nuance. But the film's best supporting character is Parker, a stranger who pops into Antonio's life a couple of times (asking for a tattoo on a day that he's particularly desperate for a client) and quickly becomes a maternal figure. Phan is luminous in the role, exuding the warmth and tenderness that no one else shows Antonio but Kathy and Jessie. Vikander is nearly unrecognizable as Kathy, a wife whose sole purpose is to keep her family together. This isn't an easy film to watch; it's heartbreaking at times and a tad heavy-handed in others. But it's also another example of Chon's gift for asking audiences to empathize with his characters.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the violence in Blue Bayou. Do you think realistic violence impacts viewers differently than stylized or superhero violence?
Discuss the representation of Asian Americans in the movie. What is Antonio's relationship to his Korean roots? How does that compare to Parker and her family's connection to their Vietnamese heritage?
Talk about the explanation of immigration issues that certain international adoptees face. Did you know it was possible for foreign-born adoptees to not be considered U.S. citizens? What is the movie's message about how they're treated?
How are the police depicted in the movie? Why is (or isn't) it believable that cops take liberties with their power? What's notable about Ace's behavior toward his partner?
- In theaters: September 17, 2021
- Cast: Justin Chon, Alicia Vikander, Emory Cohen
- Director: Justin Chon
- Studio: Focus Features
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Friendship
- Character strengths: Compassion, Empathy, Perseverance
- Run time: 112 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: language throughout and some violence
- Last updated: September 24, 2021
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