‘I Carry You with Me’ thoughtfully and uniquely conveys a personal immigrant story

“I Carry You with Me” – “I had that dream again.  I have it all the time.  It’s so real.  I’m in Mexico, my home.  I’ve returned.” – Ivan

For Ivan, traveling back to Mexico can only be a far-out wish that will never – foreseeably – come to fruition.  It’s present-day, and this 40-something is riding the New York City subway, staring out a window, and thinking about his journey that brought him to The Big Apple. 

Director/co-writer Heidi Ewing immerses her beautifully crafted and acted “I Carry You with Me” with hopes and emotional and physical treks, but she constructs a couple of daunting borders too. 

Born and raised in Mexico, Ivan illegally crossed into the U.S., so the literal hurdle between the neighboring countries is an obvious and – to this day – persistent one.  However, our lead also faced another roadblock during his youth.  While growing up in Mexico City and nearby Puebla, he coped with the social stigma of being gay.

Most of this movie’s 106-minute runtime resides in flashbacks.  Sometimes, short stanzas emerge from nowhere, but (mostly) we experience long stretches in the 1990s, and specifically 1994. 

As a 20-something, Ivan (Armando Espitia) struggles to find a fruitful career and preserve a relationship with his young son Ricky (Paco Luna), who lives with his mom.  Right away, Ewing and Espitia effectively capture Ivan’s economic and professional contentions.  Ivan’s a trained chef but currently earns a pittance by washing dishes while figuratively standing in a lengthy, invisible queue for a cooking job that will take years to materialize.  He’s strapped for cash between child support and rent, but his friend Sandra (Michelle Rodriguez) is impressed with his place, one that he claims is a sardine can.

Sandra remarks that it’s a smelly shoebox, so sure, that’s a compliment.   

Ivan (Armando Espitia) and Gerardo (Christian Vazquez)

He’s frustrated and going nowhere in his career, and this visionary believes that the U.S. is his salvation.  To complicate his immediate reality, he meets Gerardo (Christian Vazquez), a university teaching assistant, and they quickly form a relationship.  However, Ivan attempts to keep their love affair a secret for fear that his ex will no longer allow him to see their son.   

From the film’s opening few minutes, we realize that Ivan made it to the U.S.A., but did he reach his goals?  Did Gerardo follow him?  

Ewing answers these questions, but she occasionally drills further into the past to Ivan’s childhood and features key milestones that formed and hardened into his adult years.  These brief histories dampen and even threaten Ivan’s spirits, as his sexuality is ridiculed, stigmatized, and punished.  Such parental practices are outside the bounds in 2021, but in the 1980s – generally speaking – fathers simply accepting their sons wearing makeup and dresses seems as unlikely as the same dads embracing aliens landing in their backyards and inviting them inside for coffee.

These scenes are particularly effective, and score production supervisor Matt Nelson and music supervisor Hector Vazquez frequently accompany the images with a lovely, moving new-age score that helps raise emotions during moments of persecution but also during acceptance, grace, and adoration.  At times, the film is straight-up pragmatic, but during others, it’s laced with enchantment, a deeply thoughtful spell. “I Carry You with Me” conveys a Terrence Malick vibe where ideas and storytelling are voiced with music and everyday visuals rather than discourse.  Granted, Ewing doesn’t transform her script into a three-hour, avant-garde presentation, but this movie bestows Ivan’s recollections, and she captures this vision by using several creative choices in her cinematic arsenal.

Ivan (Espitia)

Heidi is a documentarian by trade, and this is her first feature, so it’s apropos that real-life events inspired this narrative.  Ivan is her friend.  Yes, she learned his story and began filming a documentary about him, but her focus changed.

During a Feb. 1, 2021 Film Independent interview with Zachary Quinto, Ewing explains, “I realized pretty soon that actually I was filming the third act of a movie.  This story deserved an epic narrative treatment that only a scripted film can accomplish.”

She included some of the documentary footage in “I Carry You with Me”, so Ivan, the actual person, appears in his feature film, a movie about crossroad choices, tradeoffs, chasing one’s passion, and finding – and attempting to hold on to – love.  These are universal themes that many of us actively confront, and in a perfect world, we should all discover our nirvana, wholly and without compromises or impediments. 

Then again, in 1994, 2021, and every year in between, maybe we’re just fooling ourselves. Perhaps, we’re not.

⭐⭐⭐ 1/2 out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐

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