One of the most beautiful things about being human is how specific and how universal it is at the same time. Everyone has a different perspective on life, but certain core emotions—love, loss, loneliness, joy—can cut across categories and create the profound experience of empathy. With its ability to evoke common feelings while dramatizing a unique point of view, film is an excellent vehicle for empathy—especially when a filmmaker makes that their guiding artistic principle, as co-writer and director Heidi Ewing does with her hybrid docu-narrative I Carry You With Me.
Up to this point, Ewing has worked exclusively in documentary, and is best known for Jesus Camp, a chilling 2006 portrait of little soldiers in the evangelical army of God that she co-directed with Rachel Grady. For I Carry You With Me, Ewing pairs with co-writer Alan Page Arriaga to fictionalize the true story of two men from Mexico. The first half of the film is a bittersweet queer romance set in the city of Puebla circa 1994, dramatizing how twentysomething Iván (Armando Espitia) and Gerardo (Christian Vázquez) fell in love against a background of prejudice and repression. Starting with a drunken night out at the bar that ends with a dreamy first kiss as the sun rises in the background, the two tentatively learn to trust and truly care for one another.
This portion of the film is beautiful to look at, shot in saturated, shadowy colors that recall Nan Goldin’s photographic portraits of twilight lovers. Ewing weaves together past and present with flashbacks to both Iván and Gerardo’s childhoods, emphasizing the joy and the terror of the boys’ lives as queer kids in a conservative Catholic community. But where I Carry You With Me gets really interesting is in its second half, when Iván, crushed by his ex-wife’s refusal to let him see their son after finding out about his and Gerardo’s relationship, takes off for New York City with his best friend Sandra (Michelle Rodríguez). There, he pursues his dream of becoming a chef—or, at least, working his way into a kitchen by delivering food on his bike.
From there, the film fragments into a kaleidoscope of impressionistic moments in these men’s lives. Ewing suddenly combines staged scenes featuring Espitia and Vazquez with documentary footage of the real Iván and Gerardo, the former grappling with the emotional effects of being separated from his family as his son grows up and his father nears the end of his life. At first, the shift is almost imperceptible, Ewing using similar handheld camera techniques for both the fictional and documentary footage. Combined with the ephemeral feel that results from collaging together little snippets of experience that span decades, the effect is like being inside Iván’s head in the first moments after waking up, when dreams and reality collide.
This approach has its upsides and its downsides. Ewing’s evocative storytelling style takes an immigration narrative shared by many undocumented people and gives it the intimate, relatable texture of everyday life. In this same way, the film is able to tackle issues of homophobia and classism without being weighed down by the bleakness that sometimes marks more straightforward social realist dramas. That being said, relevant details sometimes get lost in the telling of Iván and Gerardo’s story. But teaching the audience about the intricacies of the U.S. immigration system isn’t the point of this film—the point is to make you feel the intangible ache of being where you belong and far away from home at the same time. In that way, the film poetically, heartbreakingly succeeds.