Writer-Director and lead actor, Justin Chon, wears his heart on his sleeve as Antonio LeBlanc, an Asian/Cajun living in New Orleans threatened with deportation. This gut wrenching film of an American family fighting for their future will leave you breathless. By the end you will be looking for tissues.
LeBlanc (Chon), a Korean adoptee raised in a small town in the Louisiana bayou, is married to his loving wife Kathy (Alicia Vikander) and step-dad to their daughter, Jessie (Sydney Kowalske). Struggling to make a better life for his tight-knit family, he must deal with the problems of his past when he realizes it could lead to deportation from the only country he has ever called home. He was adopted at the age of 3 and now, 30 years later, is faced with losing his life in America and his devoted family.
The first thing that strikes you is when you hear Antonio speak his first words. His pronounced Louisiana accent is in stark contrast to his appearance. Kudos to Chon’s dialect coach, Eliza Simpson, who makes his accent believable, understandable even when he’s angry and emotionally overwrought.
In the opening scene he is turned down for a job. We never see the boss, but clearly he is white and wants no part of hiring someone who doesn’t look like him. Antonio struggles to provide for his growing family. Kathy is pregnant. Antonio has a good heart, but a checkered past. It’s his past police record and a disturbing scene in a grocery store when he’s goaded into an altercation with a racist police officer that puts him on a path to deportation.
To complicate matters, Jessie’s biological Dad, Ace (Mark O’Brien), is the police partner of the offensive cop. Ace is divorced from Kathy, but fighting tooth and nail for visitation and joint custody. His confrontational attitude with Kathy over Jessie not wanting to be with him makes him appear as a real villain. There’s a surprising arc to this New Orleans cop’s character with a surprising attitude adjustment in the end.
Vikander portrays well a woman who is constantly fighting with and for her man. They have a tough life and are in deep debt. Antonio works periodically as a tattoo artist. Kathy’s family has some wealth, but her mother does not approve of Antonio. Though pregnant, Kathy has to go back to work as a physical therapist to keep food on the table. Vikander, is a Swedish actress, but displays a believable Southern accent as well.
The film sometimes devolves into soap opera-esque drama, but the majority of these two hours keeps us involved in Antonio’s plight. Chon has found yet another superb child actor to play daughter Jessie in Sydney Kowalske. Chon allows the camera to linger on her close-ups to let us see her process the turmoil and confusion she faces trying to understand what’s happening to the people she loves.
This film has texture. It is a beautiful and sensitive piece of filmmaking, shot on 16 mm film by cinematographers, Ante Cheng and Matthew Chuang. The juxtapositions from the gritty, grainy texture of Antonio’s daily path through working as a tattoo artist and close-ups on his helmeted face driving his beloved motorcycle, to the idyllic soft focus shots of the languid backwater ponds dripping with Spanish Moss make the visual experience a vital part of the story. The beauty of the South reminds Antonio of his Korean mother in another devastating part of his childhood.
The weakest link in concept and execution of his role is Ace’s police partner Denny (Emery Cohen). He’s written with the overly broad brush of the stupid, cracker-racist. Chon’s attempt at giving him some humor never succeeds and the depiction as a one-dimensional lizard-brain comes off as just a device.
A breath of fresh air comes from the kind Vietnamese woman battling a terminal disease, who befriends Antonio and shows him another path toward dealing with family, loss and redemption. Chon crafts Parker (Linh Dan Pham) as the instrument Chon uses to bring Antonio back from the brink of total despair. Their friendship is touching, tender, and very upbeat in light of their difficult situations.
It’s clear that Chon asks the audience to leave their cynicism at the door. While some may find the tense dramatic finale too emotionally over-the-top, the majority of the audience at our screening bought into the film’s heartbreaking, tearful moments. This is a film that allows you to see and feel how millions of refugees and undocumented aliens experience life. And despite the beautiful imagery, It’s not a pretty picture.
Focus Features 1 Hour 59 Minutes R
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