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'I Carry You With Me' Blends Reality And Drama In A Wrenching Gay Love Story

 Alejandro Lopez Pineda, Sony Pictures Classics
Alejandro Lopez Pineda
Christian Vázquez as Gerardo and Armando Espitia as Iván in I Carry You with Me.

When we meet Iván on a New York subway platform at the outset of I Carry You with Me, he's lost in thought. He looks to be in his early 50s, and is musing about a time some 30 years earlier in Mexico that the film is about to recreate. It's a past he remembers as filled with waiting.

He'd been waiting for the mother of his 5-year-old to let him take his son Ricky for a playdate. Waiting to cook, rather than wash dishes at the restaurant where his boss was forever urging him to be patient. Waiting for a relationship that could work in a Mexican society that forces gay men underground. It's only when Iván (Armando Espitia) meets and falls in love with Gerardo (Christian Vázquez), that his story takes a fateful turn. He decides to cross the U.S. border where things may be better and they can begin again.

I Carry You with Me is the first narrative feature from documentary filmmaker Heidi Ewing. It's an innovative blend of Iván and Gerardo's real-life story told through documentary footage and a swooning fictionalized drama with actors. Over the course of several years, Ewing filmed Iván and Gerardo going about their lives. Then working backwards from that documentary footage, she scripted their backstory, and found actors to play them in their early 20s, and also in childhood when they dealt with fathers who were differently oppressive.

The film isn't simply an indictment of the homophobia Ivan and Gerardo faced but also a nuanced portrait of what drives people to leave home and family at great personal cost. Filmmaker Heidi Ewing told NPR's Morning Edition, "For me, there's a lot of nuance in the film because even though you see the conflict at times verging on violent between fathers and their gay sons, you also see tenderness, confusion and ignorance that's driving the anger of the fathers."

Ewing first met the real Iván and Gerardo 15 years ago. Years into their friendship, they told the filmmaker their harrowing back story in even greater depth at the 2012 edition of the Sundance Festival. It seems appropriate that a film that sprang from those conversations also won the hearts of Sundance festival goers when it premiered there in 2020. The film captured the festival's NEXT Audience Award, as well as an Innovator Award for its director.

The documentary and narrative pieces of I Carry You with Me don't always fit neatly together, but the performances, hand-held camerawork, simple truths of prejudice, poverty, and peril make it easy to glide past rough patches. It's a story of hope and sacrifice in which men who can't be gay in Mexico, and can't be undocumented in the U.S., find themselves trading one sort of hiding for another.

In her conversation with NPR, Ewing describes the film as the story of an American dream that "occurs in slow motion." The narrative eventually returns to the New York City platform where the film first opens with the real-life Ivan waiting and ruminating on his past. As Ewing says, "He's dreaming about going back to Mexico but realizes if he leaves here, he can't come back. And that's the dilemma. And it continues until this very moment."

I Carry You with Me is a distinctive, sometimes wrenching hybrid — a piece of decades-spanning "dramatic" non-fiction about a dream that did not go according to plan. But then again, which dream ever does?
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