Not long after Iván (Armando Espitia) meets and shares a passionate kiss with Gerardo (Christian Vasquez) in a gay bar outside the small Mexican town of Puebla, he talks on the phone to his mother, who tells him, “You sound different. I can almost hear your smile. Tell me who the lucky girl is.” It’s the mid-1990s, and the 20-something Iván, who has a son his ex-girlfriend is reluctant to let him see, dare not tell his mother, or anyone at all, that he’s falling in love with a man. The smile his mother senses is real but its source must remain a secret.
For I Carry You with Me (Te Llevo Conmigo), Oscar-nominated documentarian Heidi Ewing (Jesus Camp) creates an imperfect but moving narrative feature debut, finding inspiration in her friendship with the real-life Iván and Gerardo– footage of whom she cuts to extensively in the film’s final third. This structural leap is daring but it’s also jarring enough to throw you out of the film, unfortunately. The real life couple, bless them, can’t quite compete with the glow cast by their fictionalized counterparts, played with quiet, haunting grace by Espitia and Vasquez.
In the most mundane of ways, Iván’s ex-girlfriend discovers he’s gay, prompting him to risk an illegal border crossing to America, and to New York, where he’s convinced he’ll quickly make enough money to be able to return to Mexico and not only fulfill his dream of owning his own restaurant but win custody of his son. Recognizing this plan as muddled and naive, Gerardo refuses to go with Iván but promises to remain true to him, a pledge he’ll end up going to great lengths to keep.
The film is at its best in its first hour, as Ewing and the gifted cinematographer, Juan Pablo Ramirez place the couple’s love against the shadowy half light of clubs, rooftops and one-lamp apartments. Their first kiss, the one that sets Iván to smiling, is framed by the filmmakers against the night sky, as if to suggest that these two men, and their burgeoning love, are an integral part of the natural landscape. It’s the most sensual kiss in recent film and the power of it carries Iván and Gerardo, and the film Ewing has made about them, forward through all the complications that follow.
Those complications include the lingering damage done by a father dismayed at having a gay son. “Aren’t you a man?” asks Gerardo’s enraged dad. Powerful too is the moment when Iván’s friend Sandra (Michelle Rodriguez), who accompanied him on the terrifying journey to America, admits that she’s miserable and longs to return to Mexico. “They hate us here,” she declares.
Thanks to Ewing’s gift for drawing deeply felt performances from a cast of relative newcomers, as well as an achingly plaintive score by the great Jay Wadley (Driveways), I Carry You with Me casts a dreamlike spell that not even the abrupt home stretch infusion of documentary footage can break. A love as deep and abiding as the one Iván and Gerardo share is destined, it would seem, to surmount all obstacles be they political or cinematic.
Opens June 25 at Sunset 5 (8000 Sunset Blvd, West Hollywood) and The Landmark (10850 W Pico Blvd.)