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They say truth is stranger than fiction, but more often than not it’s much sadder too. Where fiction likes to wrap things up in a tidy bow, real life is all about calculated compromise. In the case of Iván Garcia and Gerardo Zabaleta, whose touching love story is dramatized in the timely drama “I Carry You With Me,” the choice between a life together in the U.S. or with family in Mexico has no clear-cut answers. The narrative feature debut of Oscar-nominated documentarian Heidi Ewing (“Jesus Camp”),
“I Carry You With Me” operates on three separate timelines, often jumping between with little rhyme or reason. Ewing intercuts footage of the real Iván, now in early middle age and a successful chef in New York City, alongside the talented actor (Armando Espitia) dramatizing his life as a young man in Puebla, Mexico, with occasional flashes of his childhood self (Yael Tadeo). In a mildly indulgent oversight, Gerardo receives the same flashback treatment, though the film belongs more to Iván and would have benefitted from a slightly narrower focus.
The two young men meet in a gay bar in Puebla, where Gerardo (Christian Vazquez) gets Iván’s attention using a flirtatious laser pointer. They acquaint themselves in a colorful, dimly lit bathroom, exchanging revealing conversation about life as a queer man in Mexico circa 1994. “I know how to pass,” says Iván. “You’re obviously really good at it,” Gerardo replies. Using a well-placed mirror and a shaky handheld camera, Ewing imbues the meeting with an intimacy and magnetism that augurs their lasting connection.
But Gerardo becomes skeptical when by chance he sees Iván with his son and his mother, although the parents are separated. Meanwhile, Iván works tirelessly washing dishes at a local restaurant even though his dream is to cook. Ewing films the fire-roasted peppers and stewing mole with a vérité-like glow, imbuing the film with her documentary eye for real life detail. When his family finds out about Gerardo, Iván decides to make the risky journey across the border. The film doesn’t fully connect the dots between the discovery and the motivation for the journey; the audience is left to assume that he would not have been allowed to see his son.
The flashes to both men’s childhoods contain lovely moments; Iván sneakily donning a quinceañera gown while a girlfriend smothers make-up on his face. “Not too vulgar,” he warns, as she retorts: “But that’s how Madonna does it.” Iván’s father is disappointed when he finds out, but not as cruel as Gerardo’s; who belts his sobbing child in a corn field in the middle of the night. “Do you know what happens to people like you? They get killed,” he barks before leaving him in the field to find his way home.
The choice to show both back stories may be a case of Ewing and co-writer Alan Page Arriaga hewing too closely to the true story. These experiences could have easily been combined, and the focus on Gerardo’s family life diverts attention from the central immigration story. By the film’s end, the fatherhood element of Iván’s story renders his journey more emotionally resonant. Gerardo, though a loving and steady partner, has faded into the background. Similarly, Iván’s decision to immigrate doesn’t come until almost halfway through the film, and the present day section with the real Gerardo and Iván feels a bit tacked on at the end.
“I Carry You With Me” succeeds in distilling a very engrossing and moving narrative from this real life drama. Ewing’s visual choices are at once sweeping and precise; finding exquisite beauty in both the arid Mexican landscapes and the timid but hungry interlocking of lips. The unique hybrid aspect of the film elevates it beyond a traditional drama, but Ewing could have leaned into the blend even more deeply. Until the final 20 minutes, the older Iván is merely a pensive face riding the subway, narrated by his own poetic voiceover. The pinnacle of the story — and what makes his struggle worth it — is his life in New York with Gerardo as a restaurant owner and chef. By glossing over those details, the film denies the audience some gratification.
But this clears the way for the final gut punch in “I Carry You With Me,” which lays bare the painful reality for undocumented immigrants in this country. Even as a business owner, there is no guarantee Iván can ever go home again without being denied entry back into the U.S. We’ve all heard the horror stories, but these small cruelties become just as heartbreaking — especially when rendered so viscerally and elegantly on film.
After premiering at Sundance, “I Carry You With Me” played the New York Film Festival on October 2. Sony Pictures Classics will release the film on January 8, 2021.