'I Carry You With Me': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
A poignant, politically resonant love story.

Documentarian Heidi Ewing's narrative feature debut traces the decades-spanning, border-crossing romance between two Mexican men.

Heartache hangs thick in the air in I Carry You With Me (Te Llevo Conmigo), a tale of love not thwarted but tested by constraints of culture, country and law.

What distinguishes this first narrative feature from documentarian Heidi Ewing (Jesus CampOne of Us), aside from a swoony blend of realism and romanticism that periodically calls to mind recent queer cinema landmarks like Moonlight, are its sweep and scope. Tracing the decades-spanning relationship between two Mexican men, from the first sparks of flirtation to committed coupledom, the film glides back and forth in time, between countries, through memories, moods and reveries. With almost Malickian impressionistic flair and a stealthily innovative mix of fictional and nonfictional elements, I Carry You With Me pulls you past its shortcomings, building toward a hushed stunner of a conclusion.

Ewing’s execution isn’t always up to her ambition. There are clumsy touches, stray clichés, moments when the drama’s dreamy, magic-hour lyricism borders on preciousness. But the poignancy of the material, and of the director’s approach, prevails. This is an intimate epic, imbued with a warmth and a tenderness that radiate from both behind and in front of the camera.

It’s also gently yet urgently political. I Carry You With Me navigates a crowded intersection of serious subjects (homophobia, immigration, poverty, prejudice), only occasionally straining under all the thematic weight; some of the dialogue and characterizations feel overly streamlined, simplified in order to allow Ewing and co-screenwriter Alan Page Arriaga to pack a lot of incident into a 111-minute running time. Refreshingly, though, the film conjures a vivid sense of injustice — of lives thrown cruelly off course by forces beyond individual control — without slipping into Ken Loach-style stridency or didacticism. It’s a stirring, deeply sincere movie, and one you root for — especially when it becomes clear that this story of longing, of dislocation both physical and emotional, is true and still unfolding.

The plotline on which I Carry You With Me pivots is set in 1994 Puebla city, not far from Mexico City. Ivan (soulful, sad-eyed Armando Espitia), a financially struggling, closeted gay man separated from his wife, with whom he has a young son, works long, sweaty shifts washing dishes at a restaurant. But he has his sights set on a higher rung in the kitchen hierarchy: A graduate of culinary school, Ivan aspires to be a chef specializing in the traditional dishes he grew up preparing and eating with his parents.

One night, Ivan and childhood friend Sandra (the appealing Michelle Rodríguez) head to an underground gay bar to blow off steam. From across the dance floor, he locks eyes with Gerardo (Christian Vázquez), a dashing teacher from a comfortable, land-owning family in Chiapas. They open up to each other over beer and cigarettes, swapping anecdotes about growing up queer in a Catholic country (Gerardo teases the more “butch”-presenting Ivan about “passing”), watching the sun rise and sharing a sweetly sensual first kiss.

As the two tiptoe toward courtship, I Carry You With Me settles into a loose but intricate nonlinear structure, also becoming something of a genre-bender: In addition to drifting into the past (childhood flashbacks show Ivan giddily trying on a quinceañera dress and Gerardo being abused by a sadistic father), the film offers what we come to understand are vérité glimpses of the real-life, present-day Ivan and Gerardo (Ewing spent the past several years gathering footage of them, though to elaborate further would risk spoiling the story’s delicate suspense and emotional impact). The shifting among three time frames allows the filmmakers to minimize expository clunkiness while illuminating why these people make the choices they do. It also gives the film its scale, tone and texture; Ewing creates a mosaic of feeling, an enveloping atmosphere of yearning and nostalgia enhanced by the lush undertows of Jay Wadley’s affecting score.

The turning point in the central, '90s-set storyline comes when Ivan’s wife realizes he has a boyfriend and threatens to cut him off from their child. Desperate but determined, Ivan decides to “cross over”: His plan is to get a job cooking in a New York restaurant, put aside money for his son and return to Mexico after a year to kick-start his career. Ivan, of course, has fallen hard for Gerardo, and asks him to come along. But Gerardo balks: “That place destroys people with loneliness,” he warns.

Ivan convinces Sandra to join him instead, and one harrowing trek through the desert later, they’re on American soil. Ultimately settling in Queens, Ivan scrapes by washing cars and delivering food. Tiny touches capture the disorienting moment-to-moment vulnerability of the undocumented experience — including how banal everyday obnoxiousness, like a group of drunk students calling out to Ivan as he makes a delivery, can take on an undercurrent of real menace.

The remainder of I Carry You With Me unfolds in ways both startling and inevitable, wrenching and hopeful. Ewing and Arriaga sketch in the two protagonists — their differences in temperament and background — with deft, if slightly broad, strokes. One could complain that Ivan and Gerardo have few of the jagged edges, the flaws and contradictions typical of the most compelling screen figures. But their grace and decency are part of what makes them, and their story, so touching; these are kind people, whose adaptability, patience and resourcefulness help them persevere through profoundly unkind circumstances.

Ewing’s documentary bona fides are evident in her eye for authentic detail — the way Ivan taps a pepper for ripeness before buying it, or the explosive, machismo-fueled energy of a busy restaurant kitchen. Sometimes that instinct for verisimilitude serves her less effectively; a drag lip-sync performance of a pop ballad at a nightclub, for example, feels like filler, taking up time that might have been more purposefully spent pulling us closer to the main characters.

Visually, I Carry You With Me is fluid and carefully crafted from start to finish. Restless handheld camerawork reinforces a sense of unsettled lives, and the city of Puebla, with its rain-slicked cobblestone streets and markets bursting with color, is brought to vibrant, romantic life.

Meanwhile, the meaning of the title (itself vaguely reminiscent of an e.e. cummings poem) — the notion of who, or what, is being “carried” — seems to change as this chronicle of love and loss, sacrifice and resilience, progresses. Such a shift is fitting for a film that expands and evolves, revealing itself gradually, its resonance not fully felt until the closing credits roll.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (NEXT)
Production companies: Black Bear Pictures, Loki Films, The Population, Zafiro Cinema
Director: Heidi Ewing
Screenwriters: Heidi Ewing, Alan Page Arriaga
Cast: Armando Espitia, Christian Vázquez, Michelle Rodríguez, Ángeles Cruz,  Raúl Briones, Arcelia Ramírez, Pascacio López, Michelle González, Luis Alberti
Producers: Mynette Louie, Heidi Ewing
Co-producers: Gabriela Maire, Edher Campos, Alexandra Vivas
Executive producers: Norman Lear, Brent Miller, Teddy Schwarzman, Ben Stillman, Michael Heimler
Cinematography: Juan Pablo Ramírez
Editor: Enat Sidi
Production designer: Sandra Cabriada
Costume designer: Brenda Gómez
Music: Jay Wadley
Casting: Isabel Cortázar, Andrea Abbiati, Sig De Miguel, Stephen Vincent

111 minutes