‘Blue Bayou’ tells a tender story but sometimes tries to do too much

While the bigger moments weigh down the film, it's still a moving depiction of working-class struggle with an immigration twist

Brad Keefe
"Blue Bayou"

It’s easy to root for a movie like “Blue Bayou.” It’s sweet to its core, often poignant and plays against expectation.

That makes the moments where the story didn’t work a little disappointing.

I’m self-aware enough to know how obnoxious it is when film critics play wannabe filmmakers, but this is really one where I feel like some notes on the script could have made this a real winner. And I was rooting for it.

In a fantastic opening scene, we meet Antonio LeBlanc (Justin Chon, who also wrote and directed the film). He’s in the middle of a job interview with his young stepdaughter, Jesse, present.

Interviewing for a role at a mechanic shop, Antonio explains that he’s looking to supplement his income (currently working as a tattoo artist) because he has a baby on the way. The shop owner brings up Antonio’s felony record for stealing motorcycles and tells him he doesn’t see a fit.

Antonio isn’t Jesse’s biological father, but he lives with her mother, Kathy (Alicia Vikander), who is pregnant with his child, and Jesse views him as dad. It’s a loving family even in the face of financial uncertainty.

But then a violent altercation in a grocery store lands Antonio in ICE custody. Antonio is a Chinese-born adoptee, and though he’s spent his whole life in Louisiana, his citizenship was never cleared.

Chon uses the plight of foreign-born adoptees as a backdrop for a layered melodrama, playing against stereotype with Antonio’s deep New Orleans drawl. This is not a matter of assimilation. This is Antonio’s whole life as an American.

Chon is also great in front of the camera in a performance that’s both tough and tender. Vikander is less effective and a curious casting choice, but they share chemistry.

Oddly, Chon’s most effective moments are often the smaller ones. From the tender father-daughter relationship to an honest depiction of working-class struggle, when “Blue Bayou” works, it works well.

It’s the bigger moments that weigh down the film. Some of the key events that propel the story feel out of place in an effort to heighten drama that wasn’t always needed.

There are also moments when “Blue Bayou” tries too hard and too shamelessly to pull the heartstrings. A friendship between Antonio and a Vietnamese-American (Linh Dan Pham) is a nice thread that also complicates a story that sometimes does too much.

Still, the misfires don’t fully derail the film. They just make it fall short of what it shot for.

“Blue Bayou”

Now playing in theaters

3 stars out of 5