Having mastered the art of “passing” as straight, Iván (Armando Espitia) feels like he’s unlocked some cheat code to surviving as a gay man in 1990s Puebla. He speaks confidently about the social balancing act with Gerardo (Christian Vázquez), who’s not used to repressing his sexuality with the same calculating effort, after they lock eyes at a clandestine club one night. While this is just one part of an all-night conversation that leads to romance, it’s an important detail that speaks to the compromising of self these characters face on a daily basis.
I Carry You With Me follows Iván and Gerardo’s decade-spanning relationship through many ups and downs, across both fiction and documentary, Mexico and the United States. Vivid memories and dreams also deepen the narrative weight of their experiences, providing context to the many journeys these men will take alone and together. It’s a beautifully lyrical film at times, but also one that’s pulled in multiple directions and genres in very jarring ways. This aesthetic tension is often hard to reconcile.
Working from a script co-written with Alan Page Arriaga, director Heidi Ewing leans heavily on the kind of hazy, dreamlike steadicam imagery that Terrence Malick has made popular with indie filmmakers hoping to capture the divine in everyday life. It mostly works here because the two lead actors share an undeniable onscreen chemistry.
Espitia’s boyish facade hides a survivor’s mentality, someone willing to work around societal contradictions to survive instead of confronting them head on. Vázquez imbues Gerardo with the kind of hope and kindness that’s even more impressive once the details of his upbringing are brought to light (flashbacks show unforgettable moments of trauma perpetrated by a toxic, disapproving father).
The contrast between masculinity and responsibility are always at the center of I Carry You With Me. One is the epitome of self-serving and conformist, anger and insecurity personified, while the other defines manhood in a far more complex way. Ewing adeptly weaves these themes into the fabric of the characters’ lives as they try to sustain the magic of their own relationship amid outside influences and homophobic violence.
When Iván decides to cross into America hoping to become a chef (“They love talent over there”), he leaves behind not only Gerardo but a young son he’s only just gotten the chance to know. The ripples of his decision are compounded even more as the film progresses into a documentary portrait of the real Iván and Gerardo (we’ve been watching a biopic all along) as they celebrate success in America while also dealing with the complicated realities of their undocumented status.
The transition from narrative fiction to documentary is handled lovingly and subtly in a stunning montage that feels earth-shattering in its dance between genres. But the interviews and B-roll that follow feels tacked on and somewhat gimmicky, an epilogue that has been stretched and molded into the shape of a third act. It doesn’t help that often times Iván’s voice over musings wander into the realm of cliche (“The American Dream happens in slow motion,” “When you dream, it all happens so fast.”)
Nevertheless, I Carry You With Me follows in the tradition of Robert M Young’s Alambrista! (1977) and Gregory Nava’s El Norte (1983) by depicting the immigrant experience in America as a cross-section of volatile extremes and soul-sucking mundanity. There’s the abrupt border crossing that involves evilly pragmatic human smugglers willing to leave people behind, which segues to the solitude of reaching your final destination and endlessly working low paying jobs in order to survive. And there are a million other small moments in between, which Ewing captures wonderfully in a scene where Gerardo (who finally decides to cross the border himself) and Iván practice their English together in a cramped New York City apartment.
Theirs is a beautiful partnership that fuels every aspect of I Carry You With Me, and we can see why Ewing felt it was worthy of such an ambitious cinematic structure. Does it always work? No. But I admire every loving frame she and her cast and crew have created.
I Carry You With Me is now playing in select theaters across the country.
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