The immigration issue has been at the forefront of American politics for decades, but perhaps never more so than in the last 10 years, thanks to the virulent racism of Donald Trump and those of his ilk. Even with a much saner Executive in the White House, little seems possible to rectify this highly-nuanced issue due to ingrained biases and bigotries, not to mention a healthy dose of political posturing. Comprehensive reform oftentimes feels like a pipe dream because practicality and compassion rarely mix in this country, and because those in seats of power thrive on reducing the situation to its starkest terms, collateral damage be damned.
Debuting at this year’s Cannes Film Festival in the “Un Certain Regard” competition, actor/director Justin Chon attempts to shine the spotlight on a very specific problem within this complex topic with Blue Bayou. Composited from a series of interviews with real people caught in the legal crosshairs, Chon gives us a fairly unique twist on a very familiar theme. He also dials up the tear-jerking well past 11 in hopes of tugging our heartstrings and wringing pathos like blood from a stone.
Chon stars as Antonio LeBlanc, a good old boy redneck from Louisiana, excepting the very noticeable fact that he’s Asian. Adopted from South Korea as a toddler, Antonio is as American (and really, as Southern) as possible, but he intentionally sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb due to his race, his plethora of tattoos, and his criminal past. The film opens with him interviewing for a job at a motorcycle repair shop, with the boss completely offscreen, anonymously judging this man who wants to do right by his stepdaughter Jessie (Sydney Kowalske) and his pregnant wife Kathy (Alicia Vikander, making the most of the material in a relatively thankless role).
This opening scene sets the tone pretty precisely, as this movie is very much not going for nuance in the plotting. We don’t get to see the face of the man interviewing Antonio, or learn anything about him, because he doesn’t matter. He’s an obstacle to the American Dream that Antonio’s trying to create, so he can’t have any dimension to him. He’s an adversary, a man who can’t understand what Antonio’s life has been like, nor will he ever get the chance.
It’s a blunt message to send right off the bat, but that’s clearly the point. Just like the immigration issues that will eventually come off, Chon uses this scene to demonstrate how easily a serious social problem can be dismissed. It doesn’t matter that Antonio has a family, one of whom actively crawling on him during the interview. What matters is that he’s been in jail, and can therefore be denied a job no questions asked. It’s a real problem in this country. If you’re an ex-convict, most states make you declare that on a job application, and once you’re a felon, no employer can be compelled to hire you. You’re still responsible for providing for yourself and your loved ones in this society, but because you previously transgressed, that society is allowed to permanently deny you the means to do so. No matter how hard you try, checking that box – as required by law – is all the information businesses need to send you packing and then criticize you for not working at the same time.
That bluntness continues into the main story. Kathy’s ex-husband Ace (Mark O’Brien) is a police officer who left her and Jessie for unspecified reasons. It’s only known that he “walked away.” Now, as Jessie’s in grade school, he’s trying to get back into her life, but Jessie doesn’t want to see him, and Kathy is happy to keep her away now that they’re with Antonio and expecting.
One night, while the family is shopping for groceries, Antonio and Kathy start arguing, and Ace, who happens to be there on duty with his partner Denny (Emory Cohen), overhears and goes over to investigate. Denny, being a racist, swinging-dick bully cop, decides to arrest Antonio for daring to try to leave and remove his family from the situation. Antonio is beaten on the scene, taken into custody, and just for good measure, handed off to ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) because he’s, you know, not white. As it turns out, Antonio is undocumented, as his adoptive parents did not properly fill out the required paperwork when he was brought to this country in order to naturalize him as a citizen. A law was passed in 2000 to rectify this situation, but those who came over before then were not grandfathered in, so Antonio, much to his own confusion, is technically an illegal alien. As such, Louisiana quickly decides to deport him, ingrained Southern drawl and all.
None of this is subtle, but it is compelling. It’s a dimension of the immigration issue that I had never heard of, nor had I even considered, mostly because I would think the government would be competent enough to just make sure people adopted before 2000 could also qualify under this same program, especially given the fact that human beings are imperfect and make mistakes, and it’s highly foreseeable that some parents wouldn’t follow instructions properly for one reason or another. For that to be the reason to deny a person their citizenship – and ultimately, their home – is dispiriting in the extreme. It also doesn’t help that this country seemingly looks for any and every excuse to catapult people out. This isn’t a left vs. right issue. Both sides are guilty. Barack Obama deported more immigrants than any other President in U.S. history during his two terms, and then Trump declared, “Hold my can of illegal hush money to porn stars!” Even Joe Biden has faltered on this front, having to be pressured to rescind some of Trump’s harshest policies, and doing little to nothing to stop atrocities like we saw with Haitian refugees last month. It doesn’t matter what side of the aisle you’re on. The fact that simple clerical errors are more than enough to rubber stamp someone out of what is supposedly the greatest country in the world is a problem that needs to be highlighted, and the lack of subtlety only serves the purpose here, because we as people need to know just how dumb and heartless this is.
Had the film continued in this vein, it might be the melodrama hit of the year. Unfortunately, the search for great scenes and symbolism kind of degrades the film into “Movie of the Week” status in the back half. Antonio and Kathy retain a lawyer to get him a hearing to appeal the deportation ruling, but the costs are such that Antonio has to go back to his old life of stealing motorcycles to pay for it. It’s supposed to be a statement on how the system keeps people down once they’re on the bottom rung, but really it’s a pointless action sequence that ultimately justifies why Antonio couldn’t get hired in the first scene. Working as a tattoo artist for spare cash, Antonio meets a Vietnamese immigrant named Parker (Linh Dan Pham), who is dying of cancer, and who gives him perspective on life in the Third World versus America. She’s there for pathos and to pretend there’s a “someone’s always got it worse” angle to the proceedings. Ace finds creepier and creepier ways to see Jessie, but ultimately proves himself to be a good person, one of the few characters to get a nuanced approach to his persona, unlike Denny, who, let’s face it, is all too real. A set of bullshit circumstances causes Kathy to have her baby, but continually fight and argue with Antonio (with her mother’s encouragement) until they move out. This is standard-issue third act conflict that’s tacked on for dramatic effect and always fails. Antonio is encouraged to visit his adoptive mother to get her to testify at his hearing, which only serves to let Chon do an “Oscar Clip” scene expositing on why that’s a bad idea.
This is definitely a film with potential, with some decent cinematography and solid performances, particularly from Chon and Vikander. It brings attention to an issue that appears really easy to fix, along with the sad, cynical reality that we as a nation will likely never do it, because it’s even easier to just throw people away. And honestly, if you get invested in these characters – and there’s plenty of material to make that happen – the ending will rip your heart out of your chest and gleefully curb stomp it.
However, if you don’t engage, this will feel like an endless maudlin slog because Chon overstuffs it with so much melodramatic cliché. There is a good story here, one very much worth exploring, especially as the credits roll displaying the names of several of the film’s consultants who are either still fighting to stay here or who have already lost. Had Chon kept his focus squarely on this aspect (with a little bit of custody drama for a B-story) and left the rest on the floor, this might have been spectacular. As it is, the film is fine, but nothing special, and ultimately forgettable. I saw it two weeks ago and had to put off the review (I got a surprise gig that’s kept me busier than expected), and since then, a lot of it barely registers anymore. Even in prepping this review, I had to remind myself that this was next on the list multiple times. That doesn’t say much for the film’s ability to stick in your mind. It’s good enough, I suppose, but at the same time, the Hulk is less heavy-handed.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? How has the immigration issue affected you or those you care about? Would you get a fleur-de-lis tattoo? Let me know!