“You were my surprise.” I Carry You with Me, or Te Llevo Conmigo, is based on a true story about how two men in Mexico are forced to put their love through the ultimate test. Multiple times.
First through their complex courtship in Puebla, as Iván (played as a young man by Armando Espitia) struggles from poverty and being able to provide for his son, whom he doesn’t get to see often due to strife with the boy’s mother. Set in the mid-to-late 90s, Iván has no choice but to hide his homosexuality from his family and the larger community, which also puts a strain on his burgeoning relationship with Gerardo (played as a young man by Christian Vázquez).
But then things get even more complicated when Iván decides to cross the border in search of a better life, one where he can reach his dream of becoming a chef like his father, effectively putting hundreds, if not thousands of miles between him and Gerardo. The man who could possibly be the love of his life.
This is director Heidi Ewing’s first narrative feature after a string of documentaries that include Jesus Camp, One of Us, and Call Your Mother. The obvious subtext of religion and its effects on taboo culture are certainly present to some mild extent in I Carry You with Me, but Ewing and her co-screenwriter Alan Page Arriaga clearly have a keener focus on making the real-life, epic melodrama about Iván and Gerardo’s hardships truly empathetic and grounded, especially in how it avoids the usual tropes of depicting Mexico as a place no person would ever want to live in.
Instead, not everyone in Iván’s community sees what’s so great about risking it all for extra money in America, and the dream of such a life clearly isn’t for everyone. Additionally, the film doesn’t avoid explaining the obvious motivations for why Iván might want to attempt something so dangerous, because it’s easy to understand what he’s after, particularly when it comes to the love he has for his son.
Ewing originally set out to make a documentary about this story, but instead opted to make a pseudo-hybrid, essentially. While the first half of the film follows a straightforward narrative about Iván and Gerardo’s blossoming love story, the second half jumps ahead and shows us the real-life men essentially playing themselves in the present-day. It’s oddly seamless in how Ewing slowly, but surely transitions the movie into a documentary, where even the cinematography gradually shifts into that unmistakable fly-on-the-wall aesthetic.
“…their memories certainly play themselves like a movie…”
What works about this transition, which could have easily felt gimmicky and jarring, is in how Ewing cleverly sets up the merging of these styles early on, by marking several points of the fictional drama with memories and flashbacks that essentially do the same thing, where an even younger character portraying Iván or Gerardo will enter the frame and take the baton of the plot. For these men, their memories certainly play themselves like a movie, so it’s fitting that when we catch up to them in the late 2010s, the world feels a little more urgent and less romanticized.
This also plays into how Iván has to make one of the most difficult choices in his life after spending years away from his son. He’d give up everything he’s worked for just to see him, and due to the immigration policies in America, that would mean he could never return. It’s fitting that Ewing would take a somewhat nonlinear, unconventional approach to telling this heartbreaking tale in order to maximize the impact of Iván’s impossible decision later in the film.
Too many films about the immigration experience leave out the uncomfortable nightmares and unshakeable feeling that you’ve made a mistake. That you should never have left. Often, even independent films choose to soften the cost and consequences of the American Dream and make it appear tantamount, like nothing else really matters as long as you get what you came for in this place. Some would even claim you should be grateful, infuriating as that sounds given the circumstances. As I Carry You with Me painstakingly demonstrates, the people who make a country home do so in spite of all the racism and prejudices they have to deal with, and Americans are the ones who should be grateful to have them here.
I Carry You With Me opens in select theaters starting June 25. You can watch the trailer for the film, here.