Belonging is something that we all search for, but for immigrants, children of immigrants, and non-white Americans, it’s something we chase continually. We push ourselves toward this ephemeral idea of being accepted by the country that’s our home and yet, we’re pushed from it, regardless of our names, how long we’ve been here, or our families. In Blue Bayou, we see the heartbreaking reality that the Unites States puts countless immigrants through on a daily basis.
Written and directed by Justin Chon, Blue Bayou follows Antonio LeBlanc and Kathy (Alicia Vikander), a young couple with a child on the way. Antonio, played by Chon, is a step-father to their beloved daughter Jessie, has a thick Cajun accent, and is trying his best to get by and provide for his family. But despite his love for his daughter and his push to find a new path before the baby is born, Antonio’s citizen status puts their future at stake. A Korean adoptee, the United States is all he’s ever known. but that doesn’t matter to ICE when it’s revealed that his adoptive parents didn’t apply for his naturalization.
Blue Bayou offers heartbreak and struggle. But it also offers a beautiful look at family and the way it holds us in place when the rest of the world tells us we don’t belong. In one scene in the film’s first act, Jessie tells Antonio that she knows he’ll love the new baby more than her because they’ll be related. After a father-daughter day, the two have an open conversation along the bayou. To calm his daughter’s fears, he explains to her that he chose her and her mom. But more importantly, every time she calls him dad, she chooses him too. While this element may seem small, it’s a conversation many have, and it’s one I had with my own step-dad, who is well, just my dad. Family is the center that the story revolves around.
Immigration is a large part of the film, with ICE raids happening in the background while Antonio lives his life in the foreground. When that family is shattered by a cop with something prove, Antonio’s sense of self along with the future he was holding onto comes crashing down. In one moment, Antonio is brutalized physically. In the next, the world falls from beneath him when he’s transferred into ICE custody.
The deportation in this film is spurred by a problem facing adoptees who weren’t naturalized. Additionally, Antonio’s story, a small “criminal” moment in his youth being turned into means for deportation despite having lived his entire life in the country, is something that hits home for someone like me, who has seen families pulled apart by ICE over running a stop sign.
Chon’s ability to center heartbreak around love is the beauty of Blue Bayou. Family is the connective tissue between every act, and so is love. The love of the film is one that is tested and bent and emerges on the other side. There is heartbreak and fear but there is also beauty. Jessie just wants to be like her dad. She wants to have his hair color, she wants to be his daughter first and foremost, avoiding her biological father Ace, a cop that led to their family’s situation. Like life, the film ebbs and flows between familial bliss and a deep sadness that cuts like a knife.
As Antonio, Chon is breathtakingly powerful. He’s a pillar of strength in one moment and vulnerable, terrified of losing his family in the next. His strength and his determination come from his desperation to stay home. To stay in the country he knows, in the city he knows, with the family he’s created. And all of that strength is cut by a terrifying sadness that moves through the film, creeping in frame by frame as the stakes get higher and his deportation date closer. In the moments of reflection, we see visions of a woman in hanbok on the water, in the rain—a foreboding spirit of a past and a country that stands as a threat and not a home.
But the hardest thing to watch in Blue Bayou is how Antonio is continually dehumanized by cops, the system, and by himself. It’s tough to watch, but it’s also a reality. Antonio’s resiliency is on display and when he finds a community that accepts him when he meets Parker (Linh Dan Pham), a Vietnamese refugee. There is a kindness that fills the film, if at least for one scene. And the love that the film is built on is a salve, but it’s also what makes the film’s harsh ending sting all the more.
Blue Bayou is a perfect film. It’s also a powerful one. It’s an emotional and breathtaking look at belonging and how the system decides who gets to be American. Whether that’s found in community, in culture, in friends, or most importantly with family. Antonio is a man that is scared, loved, and attempting to survive and feel like a part of the place he calls home. It’s a film that confronts the painful toll deportation takes on families and the way “Americanness” doesn’t protect the undocumented or unnaturalized immigrants. While Blue Bayou hits your heart like a sledgehammer, it’s well worth the watch for the storytelling, for Chon’s performance, and for the way it showcases family and how it can grow and connect to people we don’t share blood with.
Blue Bayou is playing in theaters nationwide now.
- Rating - 10/1010/10
Blue Bayou hits your heart like a sledgehammer, it’s well worth the watch for the storytelling, for Chon’s performance, and for the way it showcases family and how it can grow and connect to people we don’t share blood with.
Kate is co-founder, EIC, and CCO of BWT. She’s also a Certified Rotten Tomatoes Critic, host, and creator of our flagship podcast, But Why Tho? and Did You Have To?. She also manages all PR relationships for comics, manga, film, TV, and anime. She has an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Religious Studies focusing on how pop culture impacts society.