Artless, unconversant with nuance or subtlety and fond of hitting every nail right on the head, Blue Bayou nonetheless gets to the nitty-gritty and some of the most vexing emotional issues surrounding immigration. As contrived and ham-fisted as it may be much of the time, this Universal/Focus Features Un Certain Regard entry triggered one of strongest audience reactions seen this year in Cannes, so there could be some hungry young viewers out there waiting for just such topically-themed and just-different-enough melodrama.
The closest recent comparison one could make to Blue Bayou would be Minari, the Oscar-winning Sundance favorite about a Korean family trying to make a go of it in the rural U.S. But where that period drama exuded warmth and ultimate optimism, this new drama set in the New Orleans area, operates in considerably more dicey territory, due both to the more questionable environs and the heavy hand of the law.
Writer-director Justin Chon, who has previously made three small films, stars as Antonio, a tattoo practitioner with plenty of ink permanently displayed on his own body, although it would be hard to make any claims for him as an artist. His wife Kathy (Alicia Vikander) has a young daughter, Jessie, by Ace, a guy who just happens to be a surly, jerky cop, and another kid on the way, by Antonio. Anybody who can’t see the conflict coming there would have to be five-years-old or less. In the meantime, it would behoove Antonio to start stepping up to support the growing family.
Unfortunately, Antonio still has some growing up to do himself. He exudes a street braggadocio with little to back it up and has a quick, reflexively defensive temper that sees him flying off the handle far too easily. You wouldn’t be surprised to see anyone getting a look at Antonio’s own tats taking their business elsewhere and, in fact, the one person he does adorn with ink is an older and ailing Asian immigrant for whom he feels so sorry that he gives her a freebie.
So Antonio isn’t much of an artist or a businessman. Worse than that, he’s an irritant and a target for Kathy’s ex. Potentially fatally, he’s now in Ace’s sites, and Antonio is stupid enough to go along with the some low-lifes to steal a bunch of fancy motorcycles from a garage. Thus is the stage set for Antonio to be arrested and, ultimately, deported from the U.S.
Despite the fact that the misguided and sometimes plain stupid Antonio has brought most of his misfortune upon himself, you still can’t help feeling for guy, and even more so for Kathy, somewhat surprisingly, who never gives up on him even though he’s a jerk much of the time. There’s no doubt that Antonio’s going to need to seriously step up if he’s to have any hope of salvaging his growing family.
Seemingly with most of the pieces in place for a traditionally gratifying ending, the brutal bureaucratic and legal net suddenly lowers. All at once, the landscape for the central characters looks altogether different, and it will require all of these young people, including the children, to face bureaucratic and governmental strictures that are very onerous indeed.
Although it hasn’t much felt like it most of the away, this is a serious drama.