Gonna see my baby again
Gonna be with some of my friends
Maybe I’ll feel better again
On Blue Bayou

That song, written by Joe Melson and Roy Orbison and sung halfway through Blue Bayou, encapsulates more consumable sadness than is probably healthy. Yet, it is so beautiful it makes all that sadness palpable. A lot of songs are like that when you stop to think about them. When I first heard The Beatles’ “Help!” as a teen, I hadn’t the foggiest idea what it was about. The music is so uplifting, so fun. John’s soaring vocals, George’s picking on his Fender Stratocaster, Paul’s bouncy bass, Ringo’s jaunty drums—beautiful. I even love The Damned’s 1976 version, which transforms the original into one minute and 46 seconds of relentless driving anxiety. For years I thought Dave Vanian’s demonic take on the lyrics was more fitting than Lennon’s. I’ve changed my tune on that. It’s all Lennon for me now, and “Help!” is no longer a fun little ditty about four mates trying to help each other through. It’s a cold, hard world out there, but you’re never alone. You only think you are, and that makes things feel colder and harder.

That’s more or less the emotion thrumming through Blue Bayou, a gut-punch of a film written, directed, and starring Justin Chon. Chon plays Antonio LeBlanc, a name that makes people ask, “Where are you from?” Louisiana is the correct answer, but not the one they’re looking for. “Where are you from?” They ask again. This time, Antonio gives them what they want: Korea.

Brought to the U.S. when he was 3, Antonio has lived a life peppered by rejection. But he found a way through—though not always on the legal side of the law—and now he’s happily married and living with Kathy (Alicia Vikander) and her young daughter, Jessie (Sydney Kowalske). Antonio and Kathy have another on the way, but Antonio can’t find work. Instead of facing reality, Antonio plays in the fantasy world, and a typical fight between spouses in a supermarket attracts unwanted attention. A racist cop with a complex tries to intervene, and before you can blink, Antonio is arrested and facing deportation.

Blue Bayou is like sitting in a dingy bar and watching warm sunlight fade into neon-coated dusk while a sad song plays on the radio. The scuffle in the supermarket sets the movie’s narrative in motion, one that feels like a Kafka-esque exploration of the immigration system. Legislation was passed to protect adopted immigrants from deportation, but only in 2000 and only for children. The law does not protect Antonio. Nor does his marriage, his children, or his role in the family. His past transgressions are also working against him, as are his adopted parents. Everywhere he turns, Antonio finds a wall.

If that weren’t enough, Blue Bayou digs back into Antonio’s past and explores the traumatic event that led to him being adopted in the first place. If anyone could use a little help, it’s Antonio.

Through cosmic coincidence, I read Blue Nights, Joan Didion’s 188-page meditation on the life and death of her adopted daughter, Quintana, a day before seeing Blue Bayou. Funny how these things work out. The book’s great—even if it is sadder than hell—but this passage, in particular, echoed through my brain while watching Blue Bayou:

Adoption, I was to learn although not immediately, is hard to get right. … If someone “chose” you, what does that tell you?
Doesn’t it tell you that you were available to be “chosen”?
Doesn’t it tell you, in the end, that there are only two people in the world?
The one who “chose” you?
And they other who didn’t?

Antonio knows something about that. And he’s trying real hard to break that cycle. The moments with him and Jessie are beautiful—made all the more beautiful by Ante Cheng and Matthew Chuang’s cinematography. And it doesn’t hurt that they shot Blue Bayou on 16 mm. A story this dour deserves the warm touch of grain.

Of course, the more beautiful the happy moments, the more devastating the sad ones. And Blue Bayou doesn’t relent. That might make certain scenes feel over-written, but maybe that’s because the realistic way to shoot those moments would be shattering. Why are songs like “Blue Bayou” and “Help!” so pleasing to the ear? So intoxicating you can’t help but smile and sing along? Because they would be terrifying if they weren’t.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Blue Bayou (2021)
Written and directed by Justin Chon
Produced by Poppy Hanks, Charles D. King, Kim Roth
Starring: Justin Chon, Alicia Vikander, Mark O’Brien, Sydney Kowalske
Focus Features, Rated R, Running time 119 minutes, Opens Sept. 17, 2021.

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