Winner of both prizes awarded in the Next category of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, “I Carry You With Me” tells the true story of an undocumented gay couple from Mexico who risk their lives for love, liberty and the American Dream. Making her first foray into narrative filmmaking, documentary helmer Heidi Ewing began the project as a vérité portrait of her real-life subjects, Ivan and Gerardo, but cast actors to play the two men in reenactments of their early life — both as children and later, at the moment they met and fell in love.
LGBTQ movies out of Mexico are rare, and the idea to combine two styles of filmmaking is unique, but Ewing’s approach needs more cohesiveness. The narrative scenes are shot in a way that makes it hard to stay committed throughout, and the actors don’t seem to be playing the same two people we’re allowed to observe in the present, isolated in New York City and unable to visit the families they left behind in Mexico for fear of being deported.
When the film opens in Puebla City, Mexico, aspiring chef Ivan (Armando Espitia) is stuck washing dishes and fixing toilets despite the fact he has a culinary school diploma. There’s no room for advancement at his current job, so to ease his sorrows, he sneaks out to a secret club with his best friend Sandra (Michelle Rodriguez). There he meets openly gay Gerardo (Christian Vasquez), who is a bit more experienced and excited to discover a fresh face in the crowd. Despite a romantic evening together, Ivan and Gerardo’s attraction is tentative at first, in part because Ivan has a child from a previous relationship, and if his suspicious ex ever found out he was gay, she could prevent Ivan from ever seeing his son again.
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Feeling the pressure of being outed in a highly homophobic society, Ivan decides to cross the border for a better life, leaving his child and boyfriend behind. He and Sandra take the dangerous trek across the U.S-Mexican border, though she can’t make the crossing, so he makes the journey alone to New York City, where he imagines he will be able to live freely as a gay man. To him, America represents the land of opportunity — a chance to become a chef — but the reality proves more difficult: Ivan works menial jobs and lives modestly while learning English. Back in Mexico, Gerardo misses Ivan and thinks of crossing the border to be with him. But they haven’t calculated the sacrifice that living together in New York will require.
After both men have reunited in the U.S., the film flashes forward, incorporating documentary footage of Gerardo and Ivan’s life in New York, where Ewing befriended them in 2012. Ivan has achieved the goal of owning a restaurant, but he’s considering returning to Mexico. He hasn’t seen his son in 20 years, and the young man can’t get clearance to visit America. Ivan can’t go back to Mexico because he entered the country illegally, so he grapples with the possibility he may never see his son or other members of his family again. He talks it over with Gerardo, who isn’t interested in going back to Mexico and doesn’t want to leave everything they’ve built behind. True to their story, the film leaves things open-ended and unresolved, though it’s hard not to feel that their real lives are more interesting than the reenacted bits, which made up the majority of the film.
Ewing inserts glimpses of Ivan and Gerardo’s childhoods in the mix, as both men knew they were gay but were raised by very different fathers. In Mexico, there is a stigma surrounding homosexuality, and it isn’t openly accepted in most families, so these scenes allow audiences to see where these men come from and what they had to deal with growing up. In terms of placement, however, these scenes are incorporated at strange moments, slowing the momentum of important story beats.
Many of the narrative scenes are shot in the shadows, where only silhouettes are visible, or else framed from behind while characters are walking and having conversations. In the rare moments when the camera does gaze directly at the actors’ faces, the shots are often out of focus. A co-director (with Rachel Grady) on such compelling docs as “Jesus Camp” and “Detropia,” Ewing comes from a nonfiction background, and it’s easy to tell that she feels more comfortable with the vérité material when the film begins jumping back and forth between scripted and real-life sequences.
Still, the love story of Ivan and Gerardo is an important one, and by sharing it, Ewing brings attention to the challenges facing LGBTQ people in Mexico, encouraging empathy for those who feel compelled to flee to the U.S. in order to live openly. In terms of presentation, the hybrid format isn’t the problem so much as the way it’s constructed, where the actors don’t seem to match the people they’re playing, and the subjects’ concerns seem so different between past and present: Early on, they want to escape persecution and seek opportunity, whereas today, they are more preoccupied with the injustice of a word with borders, and the consequences of crossing them. The segments involving the real Ivan and Gerardo are easier to follow and more engaging, suggesting that “I Carry You With Me” might have worked better as a more conventional documentary.