With tens of thousands of children adopted from other countries and brought to America each year, one would think that citizenship was a given. By legally taking charge of a person’s child, transporting them from their home country to the United States, and raising them as one’s own, citizenship seems like an inherent, self-evident part of the process. However, up until about 20 years ago, this was not so. The Child Citizenship Act of 2000 at long last gave foreign-born, biological, and adopted children of U.S. citizens a path to citizenship as long as certain requirements were met by the time the adopted child reached age 18. However, law doesn’t retroactively apply to those who entered the U.S. before its enactment (and it can still exclude those whose adoptive parents didn’t meet those requirements in time). It’s a complicated and confusing process that has left countless foreign-born adoptees over 18 in the dark, many of whom don’t even realize they aren’t legally American citizens until they are well into adulthood. Antonio (Justin Chon) is one such person.
Blue Bayou is Antonio’s story, but it represents the myriad of individuals — an estimated 25,000-49,000 adopted between 1945 and 1998 — who are overlooked by the same legal loophole. It has left him without citizenship, despite arriving in the U.S. from Korea at age 3. After escaping an abusive and neglectful upbringing at the hands of his adoptive parents, Antonio struggled to stay on the right path in life, and even racked up a couple of felonies as a teen. As he grew older, though, he finally found true peace and genuine integrity with Kathy (Alicia Vikander) and her young daughter, Jessie (Sydney Kowalske) — Antonio stepped up into the father figure role for Jessie (much to the chagrin of her ostracized biological father, a local cop played by Mark O’Brien), got a job at a tattoo parlor, and is actually doing well for once in his difficult life.
While Antonio and Kathy’s love is clearly something special, the relationship Antonio and Jessie share is precious in its own way: Where Ace failed as a dad, Antonio succeeds. Where Ace was absent, Antonio is determined to be there for Jessie no matter the cost. He’s the fun parent, as Kathy calls him: allowing her to go to school wearing a Flash costume under her clothes, giving her rides on the back of his motorcycle, promising trips to Hawaii in their future. He means well, to be sure, but Kathy would rather not make promises to her daughter that can’t be kept. After all, if they can barely make ends meet as it is, how could they possibly afford a vacation? It’s enough to make Kathy snap at Antonio in the grocery store one afternoon, and the timing couldn’t have been worse: Within earshot is Ace and his hotheaded partner (Emory Cohen), a dirty cop all too eager to beat Antonio up in front of Kathy and Jessie purely because he can.
This public beatdown and subsequent arrest land Antonio in a heap of trouble with the law: As it turns out, he’s not the citizen he thought he was, and he’s now facing deportation as a result of his scuffle with Ace’s corrupt colleague. He has two options: leave the country now, or argue his case to a judge who could simply deport him anyway. What follows is a gut-wrenching true-life melodrama that observes several different aspects of adopted life in the United States, from flawed adoptive parents to mothers grappling with the choice to give up their child to the crisis of identity that adoptees face as they attempt to assimilate to a new country’s way of life. Chon serves as writer and director in addition to starring, making Blue Bayou every bit his own deeply felt exploration into the severely flawed adoption system that plagues so many in America.
Chon’s film benefits greatly from the natural grit of its Super 16mm cinematography, which gives Blue Bayou a realistic home-movie feel — especially during the more joyous sequences between Antonio, Kathy, and Jessie. Vikander, an Oscar winner, and Kowalske, a newcomer, both manage to sandwich Chon with a pair of unexpectedly raw performances as mother and daughter. As a Swedish actor and a child performer, respectively, it’s surprising to see how well the two can play Louisiana natives. This family unit is effectively the emotional core of the film, and the viewer can’t help but feel what the characters are feeling as it all unfolds via intimate closeups and aching exchanges. Everything else in the film is a distraction from the power of these three performers.
For much of its runtime, Blue Bayou works. The story is ripped straight from the headlines, and the sudden bursts of violence Chon peppers throughout mirror the violence seen in the smartphone footage that often floods social media in the wake of extreme police brutality and ICE raids alike. Viewers will likely recognize these images, know that they are true to life, and feel sick at the thought of the real people facing worse fates than Antonio every day. Consequently, it’s beyond frustrating when Chon’s film paints ICE agent Merk (Toby Vitrano) — friend of Antonio and frequent patron at his tattoo parlor — as some sort of sympathetic or winsome figure in Antonio’s struggle. Frankly, it’s one of a series of baffling developments that unfold as the film approaches its endpoint, ultimately culminating in a third act that isn’t nearly as convincing or resonant as its first two. With a few key changes Blue Bayou could very well have been a great film that refused to shy away from the reality of the situation. Instead it merely sputters toward an inconceivably Hollywood-esque finale.
Blue Bayou opens in select theaters on September 17, 2021.