Blue Bayou: a strong, punchy tale of immigration and intimidation

Trouble in paradise: Alicia Vikander and Justin Chon play a couple in the immigration drama ‘Blue Bayou’.

BLUE BAYOU *** (129 minutes) M
Anybody with any lingering doubts that American society is in a comprehensive mess will have them swept away by Blue Bayou, a thoughtful, punchy immigration drama set in America’s slow-to-change Deep South.

Writer/director Justin Chon (Twilight) stars as Antonio LeBlanc, a down-on-his-luck tattoo artist whose hard life eeking out a meagre living in New Orleans is about to get harder.

Married to the heavily pregnant Kathy (Alicia Vikander) and working hard to be a good father to her daughter Jessie (Sydney Kowalske), from a previous marriage, Antonio finds himself subject to a deportation order.

Though he has lived in Louisiana most of his life – so long he even bears a distinctive Southern twang – his status as an adopted person from Korea makes him a candidate for deportation under an odd loophole in the law because he was never naturalized.

It’s never made explicit, but the implication is that he’s suddenly getting this heat because of Ace (Mark O’Brien), Kathy’s ex and Jessie’s estranged father, a square-jawed dude with a huge chip on his shoulder who earns his living as a heavy-handed cop.

And, boy, does he hold a grudge, especially when Jessie continually spurns his attempts to connect with her. Ave doesn’t blame the little girl, he blames Kathy and her new man.

With his criminal record keeping him from supplementing his puny income, Antonio’s financial woes redouble squeeze when Barry Boucher (Vondie Curtis-Hall), the kindly lawyer who is trying to help the couple out, has to reluctantly ask them for $5000 to cover his legal efforts.

And it’s a one-shot deal. If Antonio’s challenge fails, he not only goes back to Korea, he can never return.

Based on real cases, Chon sculpts a fine personal drama from the social issue that sees solid citizens suddenly tossed in the reject bin.

Avoiding easy melodrama, he steers away from tempting stereotypes to deliver a story with real sting, though his appeal to the heartstrings does overwhelm his better judgement towards the end. It even leaves a big legal question unanswered.

Having impressed in Ex Machina, The Danish Girl (Oscar for best support) and Tomb Raider (come on, it wasn’t so bad), Swedish actress Alicia Vikander is very convincing here opposite Chon, both of whom sport very convincing accents.

Still, it’s Mark O’Brien who puts in the most nuanced performance. Playing a rejected father and husband who is seething with revenge yet yearning for family connection, he presents a surprisingly cutting portrait of a man conflicted and tortured, in search of some small measure of redemption.