During these last few years, this former raving movie fanatic has only seen one movie in the theater (and wow, did I pick a great one with Everything Everywhere All at Once). Most of the movies I watch now are dictated by my 4yo and animated. I really did enjoy Turning Red and Lightyear, though. Still, once in a blue moon when we get the kid down early enough on a Friday or Saturday night, we pick some indie movie (like we used to see in double features at the art-house movie theaters in Center City back in the day) and get transported…or surprised…or emotionally devastated. Justin Chon’s astounding Blue Bayou did all three of those things last night.
Chon writes, directs and stars in this gripping and emotional New Orleans set melodrama about a man who was adopted from Korea as a toddler, tries to better himself despite a hard-scrabble-life, and just when he’s settled down with a lovely family (his wife is played by Alicia Vikander – who we were just recently mesmerized by in Irma Vep) is suddenly pitted against a twisted and unjust statute that demands the deportation of foreign born adoptees based simply on when they were adopted and paperwork that was not filed correctly. Chon puts his characters and the viewers through the emotional ringer placing us in the midst of this gritty, chaotic life that swings from moments of beauty and deep connection to bad decisions on top of bad luck on top of institutional trauma.
The performances in Blue Bayou are amazing. Vikander quietly astounds, her ability to be such a chameleon of an actress betrayed only when she sings, and her Swedish heritage reveals her background singer for ABBA voice, which pure a clean here handling the titular song while at a Vietnamese family picnic adds unexpected layers of haunting poignancy. Chon announces himself as a major talent in front of and behind the camera. His wise and poignant script places side characters (like the Vietnamese woman who invites the main characters to the above-mentioned party) along the path who add depth to the tapestry of life on display. The film is wonderfully weighted with the small joys and big sorrows of life. And while visually and narratively Chon peppers the tale with poetic visual flourishes and dream-like visions of the past, the film stays grounded in the now – and in the harsh reality of the unfortunate souls victimized by a system that views them not as people, but pawns in an unjust bureaucratic game they never signed up to play.
Blue Bayou will leave you gutted. But, man, what a heartbreaking, beautiful, quiet beast of a film it is.
Like Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Nomadland, Passing, and C’mon C’mon before it…it’s an unforgettable arthouse-at-home diamond-in-the-rough stunner, and we were richly rewarded for finding the time to experience it.