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film review

Armando Espitia stars as Iván in director Heidi Ewing's I Carry You with Me.Alejandro Lopez Pineda/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics / Mongrel Media

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  • I Carry You with Me
  • Directed by Heidi Ewing
  • Classification PG; 111 minutes
  • Available starting Aug. 20 in theatres: Toronto (Canada Square) and Vancouver (International Village)

In Wong Kar-wai’s 2046, there’s an important line of dialogue that sums up the sad reality of any potential love connection. “Love is all a matter of timing,” says Cho Mo-wan, as played by Tony Leung Chiu-wai. “It’s no good meeting the right person too soon or too late.”

I Carry You with Me, a poignant drama-documentary hybrid that won the top prize at Sundance’s NEXT program in 2020, is about a gay Mexican man who encounters his soulmate just when he realizes that he must escape his hometown of Pueblo to build a better life for himself in the United States. Says Ivan to his new boyfriend, Gerardo: “You are my dream, but you arrived a little too soon.”

The film chronicles a decades-long love story from 1994 to the present day, as Gerardo risks his own safety to follow in his boyfriend’s footsteps illegally across the Mexican border to join him in New York. It’s also based on a true story: the real life Ivan and Gerardo play themselves in modern documentary footage, dispersed between cinematic film shots depicting the early stages of their relationship. The work is helmed by first-time feature filmmaker Heidi Ewing, best known as the co-director of the 2006 Oscar-nominated documentary, Jesus Camp.

It was Ewing who found Ivan and Gerardo’s love story so compelling that she started shooting footage of them after meeting the couple during a chance encounter in New York. I Carry You with Me is a romantic portrait full of tenderness, as well as fear and hesitation, as Ewing employs frequent dream sequences and flashbacks to show the two men’s anxieties at the hands of homophobia, societal pressures and family trauma. The obstacle of illegal immigration only makes their affecting long-distance romance all the more bittersweet.

While the film is tonally incongruous and confusing at points, Iván and Gerardo’s (Christian Vazquez) powerful love story has such high stakes, you can’t help but swoon.Alejandro Lopez Pineda/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics / Mongrel Media

Seemingly unsure if the film should be a vérité portrait centred on the gritty circumstances of illegal immigrants who can never return home, or more of a luscious star-crossed drama in the mode of God’s Own Country and Moonlight, Ewing attempts both styles of filmmaking with mixed results, deploying frequent sun-kissed flashbacks of the lovers, played by the winning Armando Espitia (as Ivan) and Christian Vazquez (as the hunky Gerardo, who looks like a soap opera star in the romantic narrative flashbacks, and a completely different person in the present). While the film is tonally incongruous and confusing at points, Ivan and Gerardo’s powerful love story has such high stakes, you can’t help but swoon. Long-distance romances are often built on the idea of a relationship rather than lived day-to-day experience; you have to be a romantic to endure their pains and pleasures.

In one scene, set in present-day New York, the ambitious Ivan has become a successful chef, climbing the ranks to own a restaurant that is managed by his partner Gerardo. He yearns to return home so he can see the son he abandoned for the first time in 20 years. Gerardo is nonplussed, urging Ivan to remain committed to the future they have in front of them.

Then, the film veers into flashbacks of how the couple first met as young men in Mexico. The traumatized Ivan can’t be seen publicly as a gay man, for fear of his ex, a woman, removing his visitation rights and his family disowning him. One night at a gay club, he encounters the irresistible Gerardo who uses a laser pointer to get his attention in a charming meet cute. They soon form a secret romance, cloistering in apartments and hidden alleyways. However, having heard stories about other people who have “crossed over” to the U.S., Ivan decides to embark on a dangerous journey across the Mexican border, looking to join American society. In a memorable sequence shot by Ewing with tense deliberate pacing, we see him running through the desert evading helicopters.

Ewing’s ability to connect with her subjects, culled from her experience in documentary filmmaking, is clearly her greatest asset. In both past- and present-day sequences, she depicts intimate stolen moments that feel like memories. Her sumptuous hand-held Terrence Malick-esque cinematography shows the young lovers kissing by magic hour sunsets and exploring each other’s bodies. Unfortunately, I Carry You With Me is missing an emotional throughline and central conflict, as Ivan’s need to reunite with his estranged son in Mexico is never resolved.

Gorgeously shot, with a story that feels emotionally true if not quite sound, there’s so much to praise Ewing for in her narrative debut, you almost forget that the movie is missing a pivotal plot point. It is so hard to feel freedom, let alone in someone else’s embrace. Ivan and Gerardo’s relationship is worth fighting for; this flawed but powerful immigrant love story is worthy of the big screen.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)

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