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Why Justin Chon's 'Blue Bayou' is a powerful film with purpose

If you are a fan of New Orleans and gritty family dramas with an equal amount of hope and heartbreak, watch this movie.
Credit: Focus Features

ST. LOUIS — Movies with a motive always stick to the spine longer than most films that pass by our desk each week. It doesn't have to be the most noble of motives; it could be an act of compassion that sparks an idea, which then manifests into a cinematic dream come true.

It doesn't take long to feel the power and compassion behind Justin Chon's "Blue Bayou," a heartbreaking yet earnestly open-minded drama about a family living on the brink in New Orleans. Chon's tale is driven by the soulless and powerless immigration laws that have swept through the United States, tearing apart hard-working families in an instant. But what he puts on display for just under two hours may be one of the most emotional movies I have watched this year. It goes to dark places, but never forgets about hope.

In "Blue Bayou," Chon is Antonio, a tattoo artist with a criminal record and family, two things that he carries around with him to every job interview or destination that may create a better life for his wife Anna (Alicia Vikander), step-daughter Jessie (Sydney Kowalske), and their newborn baby. Born in Korea yet raised in the states by an American couple, Antonio doesn't enjoy legal citizenship, something that was seemingly taken out of his control by his upbringing.

That particular plot thread is a real thing, illustrated in the post-credits by Chon (who also wrote the script) with several real examples of children brought to the United States without a worry in the world as a kid, yet stripped of that freedom as a grown-up. That is the current that "Blue Bayou" rides atop, addressing a moral injustice with a story that could be ripped from the headlines in any of the past few years, enlivened here by a rich story that pulls on the heartstrings.

Chon's movie has that gorgeous lived-in aesthetic that sets the viewer up for a sad elbow drop later. In other words, it's very easy to become invested in Antonio, Anna, and Jessie's story because of the impending doom that we know is going to sneak up on them. That occurs with a confrontation between them and a couple of cops in a grocery store, including Anna's ex-boyfriend and Jessie's birth father (Mark O'Brien) and his buffoon partner (Emory Cohen). From there, a state of desperation enters Antonio's world, one that could disrupt everything he's built and worked for.

The acting is simply phenomenal. Chon isn't a well-known face to general movie audiences, and that could play in his favor when they meet Antonio. Without a star face covering up the picture, it's easier for a moviegoer to become attached to a character if they think of him as the stranger who just walked into their lives. Antonio isn't without his faults, with a history of motorcycle thefts clogging up his career prospects. And Chon never shies away from the darkness and blunt stroke of his decision-making; sometimes, a father can be running only to stand still in the harshest of times. What the writer/director/star never does here is demand us to feel sorry for Antonio, only to follow his story.

Vikander is an esteemed talent but she finds hidden vulnerabilities in Anna, a tough woman who can tell it's going to rain before the clouds in her world can even get dark. She also sings Linda Ronstadt's song beautifully, pulling all the seeker, dreamer notes from its lyrics. The actress said her hand started to shake out of nervous anxiety as she sang the song, and it's that go-for-broke mentality that really empowers Chon's movie. Kowalske is a quiet revelation as a young girl who is too wise for her tender age. I love when kids don't just rely on the cuteness factor, but instead give a performance that is built on truth and instinct. You never once question if these three are a family.

Chon infuses that renegade spirit into Antonio, oftentimes allowing a series of facial expressions and movements to enrich his performance. There's intricate yet sincere details in his work here that surprise and devastate the viewer, all in the name of telling a powerful tale in a way that sticks. He often eschews the spotlight, allowing his co-stars to flourish without impacting his own acting. It's assured and confident work--especially in scenes with Linh Dan Pham's Parker, a cancer patient who befriends Antonio at the hospital. As fellow refugees seeking temporary solace in each other's company, there's a poetic momentum to their unlikely friendship.

The soundtrack helps balance out the at-times overworked score, with a Bon Iver track getting things started nicely early on. One can't overstate the impact of New Orleans on the movie. If there's a true supporting character worth mentioning, it's the luscious city stuffed with a million dreamers. It wraps its big, beautiful arms around Chon's story, pulling it in real close and tight so we can feel every single thing the director had intended.

This is rare work, if you allow it to hit you. It's not an agenda film; you can think of it as a gritty family drama with real-world purpose and ingenuity.

If you didn't know Justin Chon's name before the summer, you certainly should have it memorized by the time the fall season hits. Don't miss "Blue Bayou," a powerful film with motive and a soul.

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