By Alex McPherson

A soul-stirring examination of love, injustice, and the American Dream, director Heidi Ewing’s new film, “I Carry You With Me,” will stay with me for a long time to come.

Based on a true story, the film centers around Iván (Armando Espitia), an aspiring chef living in Puebla, Mexico, and barely making enough money to support his wife and young child. Iván is also gay and remains unable to freely express himself. While visiting a nightclub with his good-humored best friend, Sandra (Michelle Rodríguez), he meets a charismatic schoolteacher named Gerardo (Christian Vazquez). After spending the night together, the two fall passionately in love, yet their relationship is fraught with danger. It doesn’t take long before Iván’s wife finds out about Gerardo, and she promptly cuts Iván off from interacting with her or their son. Devastated and lacking opportunities for economic mobility, Iván decides to illegally cross the border into the U.S., then onto New York City, with hopes of a new beginning.

Veering elegantly between several timelines, “I Carry You with Me” presents a heartbreaking story of rebellion against prejudice. Ewing’s film urges viewers to treat those in similar situations with respect, dignity, and appreciation of the sacrifices they make in pursuit of a better life. 

Beginning with documentary footage of the real Iván riding the metro in NYC, the bulk of the film takes place through flashbacks that illuminate his story in an engrossing fashion — echoing his nostalgia for years gone by and fears for his uncertain future. Espitia powerfully conveys Iván’s internal conflicts, including regarding the legal consequences of being an undocumented immigrant, with a mournful air that sparks empathy from the moment we lay eyes on him. Vazquez delivers an effective performance, but it’s clear the film’s attention rests mainly on Iván’s character. Their bond is the film’s core, and Ewing emphasizes the difficulties of maintaining it in the face of biased, heteronormative standards.

Several sequences remind me of Barry Jenkins’ filmography in how the editing and camerawork evoke complex emotions in a manner that’s rarely pretentious, but deeply tender. “I Carry You With Me” is not an uplifting film by any means, but the film creates instances of beauty that radiate from the screen. Ewing proceeds to counter those moments in scenes that inspire anger, frustration, and sympathy for the lead characters — rendering fleeting moments of relief all the more poignant, and emphasizing the tragedy of what’s lost through existing in a world drenched in inequality. 

From its opening frames, “I Carry You With Me” has a strong sense of place, and Ewing’s documentarian background is on full display. The cluttered cityscapes and wide open rural prairies, often draped in darkness, visualize an environment equally overwhelming and restrictive — one which holds memories both joyous and tragic for our protagonists. Indeed, as the central romance blossoms, “I Carry You With Me” takes detours into both men’s childhoods, showcasing threats from their respective fathers to abandon their homosexuality. These well-acted sequences, though undeniably difficult to watch, underscore what’s at stake.

The concept of memory, in fact, plays a huge role in the film as a whole — especially when it switches to a more traditional documentary style in its last third — where we observe how Iván and Gerardo have been morphed by the past, retaining only pieces of their former selves as they make tough decisions in service of love and personal growth.

Although the nonlinear structure gives more attention to Iván than Gerardo, “I Carry You With Me” is an altogether impressive film, formulating a persuasive cry for justice for all human beings, regardless of sexual orientation or place of origin, with lyrical verve. While Ewing may be preaching to the choir, her film depicts lives whose stories are absolutely worth telling, and which should be carried in our hearts.

“I Carry You With Me” is a 2020 drama directed by Heidi Ewing and starring Armando Espitia and Christian Vasquez. It is rated R for language and brief nudity and runs 1 hour, 51 minutes. Alex’s Grade: A-. It is available in selected St. Louis theatres on July 2 and available virtually at the Tribeca Film Festival (Tribeca at Home through June 23).