Filmmaker Heidi Ewing is best known as one half of Loki Films; with her co-director Rachel Grady, the two have helmed some of the most interesting and human-centered documentaries of recent memory. In 2006, the duo chronicled a summer camp for evangelical kids in Jesus Camp; 2012’s Detropia examined the rise and collapse of Detroit’s manufacturing economy and the people left in its wake; and most recently, they collaborated on their first documentary mini-series, Love Fraud, about a serial womanizer and the female bounty-hunter who took it upon herself to track him down.
Now, Ewing branches out on her own for I Carry You With Me, a narrative film that almost seamlessly weaves in elements of her documentarian roots as it recounts the decades-long love story of Iván (Armando Espitia) and Gerardo (Christian Vazquez), two Mexican immigrants who rely on their love for each other to see them through life’s many ups and downs. Beautifully filmed by Juan Pablo Ramírez as a sort of dreamy, pensive, jewel-toned journey from adolescence to middle-age, the film (which Ewing co-wrote with Alan Page Arriaga) is rooted in the authenticity of the men, their relationship and their journey to immigrate to the United States, and the film elevates that truth above all else. From the early scenes establishing youthful Iván as dad to a young son struggling to maintain good relations with the boy’s mother to some of the film’s more harrowing moments as he and friend Sandra (Michelle Rodríguez) rely on sketchy coyotes to transport them illegally (and dangerously) over the U.S./Mexican border, it all feels lived in and genuine in a way that perhaps only a documentarian could elicit from her cast and crew.
Iván and Gerardo meet in the sweetest of ways, a meet-cute at a clandestine gay club in 1980s Puebla, Mexico. Much more secure in his identity, Gerardo draws shy Iván out of his shell and even comes to understand his new love’s obligations as a father and provider. Their early romance is beyond sweet, a puppy love that’s filled with promises of forever and finding their way through whatever is ahead together. But soon, Iván must think about those who count on him and so he makes the difficult decision to leave the man he loves to risk it all crossing the border into the U.S. There, the hope is he’ll find work and get settled enough to have Gerardo join him eventually. But of course, their plans aren’t entirely theirs to realize, depending on people-smugglers, employers and even whole governments to help bring them back together again.
As the film advances through the years, Ewing transitions almost imperceptibly to documentary footage of the real Iván and Gerardo, the former now a renowned chef in New York, albeit one who’s still in the country illegally and who hasn’t seen his now-grown son in 20 years. Ramírez captures the men in quiet moments as they navigate opening a new restaurant together and deciding whether or not to return to Mexico, a home from which neither of them has ever truly moved all that far. For anyone other than Ewing, it would be a choice for a film that, until this point, has been driven so beautifully by the vulnerable, gentle performances from Espitia and Vazquez. If the film suffers from any production hiccups, it’s in the perceptible difference between the actors’ performances and the men just being themselves; even momentarily, it jars one out of the moment as the film forces its audience to think about which version of Iván and Gerardo we’re seeing in which moment.
In the end, Ewing has done in narrative film what she (and Grady) are so good at doing in their documentaries: bringing the humanity forward in a story that navigates so much more. I Carry You With Me is an epic love story about two people with an undeniable connection both to each other and to their roots, two men trying their best to build the life they want while not forgetting where they’ve come from.
I Carry You With Me is now playing in theaters, including at Music Box Theatre.
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