To Heidi Ewing, they were simply Iván and Gerardo, a longtime couple who owned restaurants in New York, liked to go dancing, were wonderful company to be around. They had met in Mexico in 1994. Iván had a son and aspirations to be a chef. Gerardo had grown up on a cattle ranch in Chiapas and worked as a teacher. He spotted Iván, closeted at the time, in a gay bar and attracted his attention with a laser pointer. They were very young then. Now they were married, and middle-aged, and settled down.
Both men had endured a lot to get to where they were now, of course — and while it’s a cliché to say that everyone has a story, and that those stories are rarely Point-A-to-Point-B simple, Ewing recognized that Iván and Gerardo’s journey to this moment was filled with scars, sacrifices, setbacks, regrets. It had been joyous, and it had been rough. Having made documentaries alongside her creative collaborator Rachel Grady (The Boys of Baraka, Jesus Camp, One of Us) for close to two decades, she began to entertain the idea of doing a movie about her friends. Ewing’s solo outing started out as a standard nonfiction project, and in some alternative universe, there is a textbook Dateline-with-benefits–style doc about how these two Mexican immigrants kept the flame of their love burning.
I doubt, however, that it would be as effective or touching as what the filmmaker eventually did to honor their relationship. A mix of re-creations, portraiture, and poetry, I Carry You With Me is a free-form look back at Iván’s and Gerardo’s lives together and apart, as well as winding its way through their individual experiences growing up and growing older. You are able to rewind back to that first encounter, as the twentysomething Iván (played by Armando Espitia) notices a red dot moving along his hand, then zeroes in on the handsome young guy (Christian Vazquez) across the room who’s responsible for lighting him up. You can hear their cruising conversations, tentatively feeling each other out in a back room, and see their first kiss. You get to know each of them: Iván is afraid that his son’s mother will forbid him from ever seeing his child again if she finds out about his secret, while Gerardo pals around with his out-and-proud friends in Puebla’s gay scene. They both have traumatic childhood memories involving shame, fear, and their parents in regards to their homosexuality. And once Iván eventually decides to cross the border and look for opportunities in America, they both have to adjust to being immigrants in a country that doesn’t always treat them with respect or dignity.
It’s the way that all of this seamlessly flows together — transitioning from, say, a shot of Espitia walking along a back road at dusk to the real Iván entering the subway in the Lower East Side — that turns Carry into something besides a just-the-facts-ma’am recounting of their romance or a moving-picture scrapbook. The ability to collapse time is one of the primary weapons in cinema’s arsenal, and along with co-writer Alan Page Arriaga, cinematographer Juan Pablo Ramírez, and editor Enat Sidi, Ewing guides us from that first meeting to present-day musings, isolated moments from their youth, a history told in fragments. There are familiar elements here, including a perilous trip across the desert with a coyote and Iván’s friend Sandra (Michelle Rodríguez), and a reminder that for so many members of the LGBTQ community, threats of ostracization or random hate crimes are very real. Gerardo’s spirit-crushing interview while initially trying to enter the U.S. and Iván’s inability to return to Mexico to see his child speaks to what undocumented workers have endured, especially over the past five years; a brief clip of his now-grown son wondering when, or whether, he’ll see his dad again is heartrending. (It’s the one aspect of their story that you wish the film explored a little deeper.)
But the overall feeling here is ethereal, dreamy, moody, memory-like — a more user-friendly Terence Malick vibe. It is a gorgeous film, and one that deserves to be seen on a giant screen as much as that other only-in-theaters release this weekend, F9. And even when I Carry You With Me becomes so lost in its aesthetic that you worry it’s losing focus, this impressionistic approach doesn’t take away from what is an intimate, extremely personal story of two men fighting to build a life with each other. If anything, it adds an element of emotional voltage that gets past the ceiling of headlines and sound bites that characterize discussions about these issues. Werner Herzog famously invoked a notion of “ecstatic truth,” in which documentaries downgraded an adherence to strict reportage in favor of something “mysterious and elusive … reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.” Ewing’s movie is a stunning example of when that concept actually works. It’s a story that touches on so many things, and arguably leaves out as much as it includes, yet never, ever loses sight of the two people at the center of it.