The truth is as important in narrative filmmaking as it is in documentaries. In both forms, truth is what resonates. Cameras were built to capture what’s true, be it on an emotional, spiritual level, or on a literal one. Director Heidi Ewing ambitiously combines the two in I Carry You With Me, a hybrid of scripted cinema at its most poetic and understated and a documentary openly examining the flaws of two countries’ immigration policies. Though the two only substantially crisscross each other in the last third or so of the film, it’s incredibly jarring each time, and both sides of the truth significantly suffer in what Ewing is trying to achieve by putting them together.
Coming from the documentary world, Ewing initially plays it straight. Aside from a few shots and pieces of narration from who we learn is the real-life inspiration of the main character in the opening act, I Carry You With Me carries on like a work of fiction. Ivan (Armando Espitia) is a young, mostly closeted single father in Mexico in the 1990s with aspirations of becoming a chef. At a gay bar with his sister (Michelle Rodriguez, not the Fast & Furious star), he meets Gerardo (Christian Vazquez), a charming, flirtatious man with whom Ivan ignites a romance.
While Espitia and Vazquez have strong chemistry and passion on screen together, it’s Ewing’s muted combination of dreamlike visuals combined with intimate, shaky close-ups that lulls us into a longing sense of romance. This is a love story built upon visual poetry, offering tender glimpses of love and a high appreciation for the micro-expressions on each lover’s face. The language of Ewing’s camera, handled by Juan Pablo Ramirez, is that of the diner scene in Moonlight or any of the quiet bedroom scenes from Portrait of a Lady on Fire, capturing same-sex romance with a kind of secret knowing that feels mountains more authentic than cinema’s more heterosexually minded LGBTQ+ works.
Conflict arises, as it always does, when Ivan wishes to cross the border into the United States, hoping some of his loved ones might join him. Upon his success, with just his sister in tow, I Carry You With Me delivers its most exquisite half hour. Arriving in New York City, Ivan finds his dreams arguably further away than they were in Mexico. He’s living a lie of faint happiness in phone calls to his long-distance lover, while his sister wonders aloud in their crowded shoebox apartment what they’re doing there struggling when they can be back home with their family.
Ewing appears to be approaching a sharp yet utterly heartbreaking commentary on the lie of the American Dream, and for a while, I Carry You With Me is nothing short of sensational. Its fiction had found its truth in both the love between Ivan and Gerardo and the cold, harsh realities of American living as an undocumented immigrant. And boy did the truth hurt, even while finding time for small, complicated triumphs. But then the curtain suddenly falls, and the film’s moody, lyrical veil is tossed in favor of harsh documentary lighting and protracted monologues that reveal exactly what the real Ivan and Gerardo are thinking and feeling in present day New York City, where they have found relative success.
The transition is rough, and it suddenly appears as though Ewing felt her spin on the story didn’t capture the complexity of the real thing. While that’s of course likely true to and for the true-life subjects, who Ewing is close personal friends with, as an expression intended for audiences with no personal association, the film interrupts itself to show us another totally different film. And it continues to do that until the credits roll.
The juxtaposition also reveals how seemingly unlike their real-life counterparts Espitia and Vazquez actually are, thus lessening the effect of the cinematic greatness that came before. A documentary about Ivan and Gerardo could have been fascinating, but as an elongated punctuation to the dramatized version of their story, it’s a disorienting contrast. As much as the real version of these people deserve to have their story told, the versions played by the actors are denied a satisfying ending.