Throughout Heidi Ewing’s achingly beautiful “I Carry You With Me,” Ivan (Armando Espitia) and Gerardo (Christian Vasquez) can be seen framed by the metal bars of a window or through doors that are cracked ajar ever so slightly, the feeling of being obscured leavened by the energy coming from whatever room the lovers in Puebla, Mexico are inside. It’s fitting that when the two men first meet after Ivan’s friend Sandra (Michelle Rodriguez) has taken Ivan out to a gay bar, there are others dancing outside in the main ballroom as the two do their own conversational pas de deux in a leaky backroom, nursing beers and having better time than anyone in each other’s company, though Gerardo is quick to conclude, “You’d make a pretty complicated boyfriend.”
He hardly knows the half of it, as Ewing gradually reveals in this truly unique and special drama, a hybrid of sorts from the accomplished nonfiction filmmaker, whose collaborations with Rachel Grady include “Jesus Camp” and “Detropia.” “I Carry You With Me” is her first solo effort, and also the first to include scripted elements, but it was reverse-engineered from documentary footage Ewing shot over the past eight years of Ivan, who eventually made it to New York and can be seen in the opening frames of the film on a subway, reflecting back on his younger self in Mexico. With the dream of becoming a chef, Ivan is stifled by his young age in the kitchen, his certificate from a culinary institute meaning little at restaurants where it typically takes four to five years to graduate from chopping cilantro, and leads a closeted life when he’s also a father to a young son he cares for deeply, concerned that the mother (Michelle Gonzalez) will find out and refuse to let him see him. Meeting Gerardo couldn’t come at a worse time as Ivan has thoughts of crossing the border, but it’s clear there’s no running from what they have and they’ll stay together until they can’t anymore.
A separation is inevitable, but their love for each other never wanes and on a small, intimate scale, Ewing crafts a truly epic romance that brilliantly moves back and forth in time so fluidly it feels as if it’s stream of consciousness but so impressively that every image sears itself into your mind and every emotion is felt at the pit of your stomach. Although the director clearly enjoys shooting at magic hour, with so many unforgettable sunrises and sunsets lensed by cinematographer Juan Pablo Ramirez for backdrops, there isn’t a second that goes by without at least some magic in it, whether it’s in the seemingly effortless performances that achieve the same level of humanity as you’d expect from one of Ewing’s verite films or “I Carry You With Me”’s gradual march to present day New York where the real Ivan can be seen as the product of all the influences that have been so vividly and movingly recreated, getting the movie star treatment that you suspect so many people thought to live ordinary lives around us deserve if given the chance to know them. In giving the great privilege of getting to know Ivan and Gerardo, Ewing has done something genuinely extraordinary.
“I Carry You With Me” will screen at the Sundance Film Festival on January 31st at 8:30 pm at the Prospector Square Theatre and February 1st at the Ray Theatre in Park City. It will be released later this year by Sony Pictures Classics.