I Carry You with Me (Te llevo conmigo) is a story about the dividing lines between loved ones. Some of those lines are literal — a border between countries or a closed-door — while others are more nebulous, like the emotional barriers we put up or the subjects we are not able to discuss for fear of rejection. In this Sundance award-winner, documentary filmmaker Heidi Ewing makes her narrative film debut, bringing to life a Spanish-language screenplay she wrote with Alan Page Arriaga that tells a tale of star-crossed love.
Though I Carry You with Me is a fictional recreation through scripted narrative, it draws upon a true story of a real-life undocumented gay couple. The year is 1994, and the setting is Puebla City, Mexico; two young gay men, Iván (Armando Espitia) and Gerardo (Christian Vázquez) are pulled towards one another but struggle to find a place for their love outside of the closet and away from prejudice.
The pair seem rather different at first: Iván is a young father struggling to express his sexuality, hiding from his suspicious family, while high school teacher Gerardo is more open. Gerardo comes from money, while Iván is struggling to make ends meet and support his wife and young son. Yet when Iván goes out for a night on the town with his friend Sandra (Michelle Rodríguez), the two men share electric looks across the dancefloor and whispered conversations in the bathroom — and something begins, even if where that beginning will take them is immensely uncertain.
Ewing was nominated for an Oscar for her searing documentary Jesus Camp about a charismatic Christian summer camp and evangelical indoctrination, and this romantic drama has obvious traces of her investigative approach as she explores the extremely Catholic country of Mexico and the social stigma surrounding homosexuality. The film takes up these deeply politically and emotionally charged topics of homophobia, anti-immigrant discrimination, and economic depression with deft, prompting, and urgent yelps of injustice.
Though the love the two men share may seem transcendent, it is hard to ignore the bitter social and economic realities of their present situation, and eventually, it becomes time to consider “crossing over.” Iván makes the heart-wrenching decision to leave Mexico and search for better work and opportunity in the United States. America offers the promise of becoming a chef and being able to live freely as a gay man — but also brings enormous challenges of being undocumented immigrants when they resettle in New York.
As the swooning romance spans across years and borders, Ewing mixes sharp realism with an impressionistic touch, moving between moments and memories to bring scenes of the men’s pasts to life. There are moments of observational authenticity where she lets the color of gay nightclubs or the sounds of bustling kitchens speak for themselves, and she captures the emotional anguish of separation from loved ones and the terrifying threat of deportation.
The film takes a turn in genre, though, as Ewing introduces contemporary documentary footage of the real Iván and Gerardo. Lest we have any doubt that the preceding narrative was rooted in truth, we see actual men behind it. She traces them through the years and interviews them in the present day, and some of the camerawork becomes more obviously handheld as she follows them in quiet moments at home or journeys with them to social events or mass. Cinematography by Juan Pablo Ramírez generates a haze around the reenactments, most of which are shadowy or slightly blurred, and we rarely see the actors head-on; the documentary scenes feel raw and unfiltered.
While her blend of documentary and narrative techniques is stylistically innovative and admirable, it could be more cohesive. We oscillate between multiple timelines and tones, and Ewing may try to use actors to create a vérité portrait of the central pair, but it can often be difficult to imagine the Iván and Gerardo we see in Mexico are the same men we see in New York. This is not due to any fault of casting, though. Rather than condemning the disjointedness of the film, perhaps we can see it as reflecting the thematic idea of emotional distance — the people once familiar and loved become strangers.
The physical distance between past and present lives cannot be overlooked, and Iván feels pulled back towards Mexico, desperate to be reunited with the son he hasn’t seen for decades. But returning to Mexico feels like starting from scratch, and the men struggle to see a life for themselves in their former country. Instead, they are left only with one another — and with fragments of memory and small traces of the people they once were.
Iván and Gerardo’s story is riveting enough to make a gripping documentary as it is, and even as the format and aesthetic approach changes, it remains a tear-jerker. Ewing’s astute eye for real emotion allows the love at the center of I Carry You with Me to come across in every moment. Even with linguistic and emotional barriers, love requires no translation.