Dream of Light
by Beatrice Loayza

NYFF:
I Carry You With Me
Dir. Heidi Ewing, U.S./Mexico, Sony Pictures Classics

Documentarian Heidi Ewing’s first foray into scripted narrative, I Carry You With Me (Te llevo conmigo) trembles with longing. In this nonlinear, decades-spanning romance about an undocumented gay couple from Mexico, Ewing paints love’s first blush as a neon-lit meet cute, a first kiss beneath a purple dawn. Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, and Todd Haynes’s Carol come to mind, three films that capture days or moments of fulfilled desire as dream states, sweet yet achingly distant or temporary. A poignant nostalgia fuels I Carry You With Me, but rather than lament a love that could have been, this nostalgia articulates a crisis of identity—a yearning to be made whole—splintered by time and distance, culture and politics.

The film was originally conceived as a documentary following two of Ewing’s personal friends, New York restaurateur Iván and his partner Gerardo, whom the filmmaker met in 2005. Ewing constructs the present-day storyline using footage of the real-life couple captured over the past decade. The past, with the force of memories crystallized into the stuff of myth, invades the present in the form of dramatic recreations: actors representing younger versions of Iván and Gerardo and a script by Ewing and Alan Page Arriaga based on, but not completely faithful to, the couple’s recollections. Ewing’s blending of past and present, fiction and reality, lacks a strong internal logic that matches the scope of her narrative ambitions. Though it oscillates between multiple timelines, the film is structured such that the documentary component of the present timeline, and its grounding in reality, is revealed in a late twist. Nevertheless, the striking contrast between the film’s two modes—dreamy retrospection and a raw, undecorated present tense—summons a painful disconnect, of striving to connect to one’s origins while memories of the past begin to fade away.

In the opening scene, the real-life Iván—walking through the city with all the unfazed swagger of a New Yorker—reveals in voiceover narration: “I had that dream again,” as images of his younger self fold into the present. “I’ve returned.” The destination is Puebla, Mexico, circa 1994. A culinary school graduate scraping by as a dishwasher, 20-something Iván (Armando Espitia) is stifled by his circumstances. He has a five-year-old son from a failed relationship; he loves the child but can give him very little in terms of material support. The boy’s mother harbors doubts; Iván wants to see his son more regularly, yet he’s incapable of providing money for a new pair of shoes, and digs through his pockets for spare change, sacrificing his own bus fare as an offering instead. He fears that his sexuality will divide father and son, knowing that coming out as gay would have a scandalizing effect on his son’s mother. Her predicted intolerance speaks to the deeply homophobic and machista society at large.

At the same time, young Iván is not completely repressed. In his best friend, the genial Sandra (Mexican comedienne Michelle Rodriguez), Iván has someone with whom he can be himself, as well as an encouraging wingwoman during evening romps in queer-friendly parts of town. During one such night out at a clandestine gay watering hole, a laser pointer-assisted flirtation leads Iván to Gerardo (Christian Vázquez). The two hit it off, but Gerardo, a debonair graduate student, is openly gay, while Iván passes for straight (though his frumpy mystique is alluring to Gerardo). Ewing suggests this discrepancy is rooted in class. Gerardo, the son of a landowning family from Hidalgo, comes from means, which surely facilitated his entry into the comparatively progressive, and open-minded realm of the university.

Ewing apparently sees no need to reproduce the violence to which gay men are often subjected in cinema, a shorthand for depicting the brutality and backwardness of a place. For both men, the danger of breaking heteronormative codes, much less being openly gay, is tied to traumatizing childhood encounters with their fathers—from midnight joyride-style harassment to gestures of simmering, silent disapproval. In one flashback, Gerardo’s father drunkenly drags his small son out from bed to berate him for his much-gossiped-about feminine ways. He describes the ugly consequences: “Do you know what happens? You’ll get killed and tossed into the mountains.”

The threat mirrors the film’s other major physical peril: the journey across the U.S. border. Outcasts whose actions strip them of their humanity in the eyes of the law and society, undocumented immigrants and gay men have in common the nightmare of retribution, of the possibility of their unwanted bodies cast off or abandoned in the middle of the desert. “They hate us over there,” Gerardo snaps when Iván reveals his plan to cross, make some cash, and return to Puebla within a year. Though Gerardo is referring to their ethnicity and nationality, he could just as well be talking about their identities as gay men. Crucially, our protagonists aren’t naive daydreamers who view the United States as the promised land with the answers to all their problems. (However, regular references to American pop culture indicates that the neighboring country, in one way or another, is frequently on the mind—Iván jokes about masturbating to Tom Cruise, while Sandra applies makeup inspired by Madonna.) “All you’re going to do over there is pick grapes,” Gerardo insists.

Yet Iván is desperate for a new setting and new possibilities that might grant him the dignity and purpose denied him in Mexico. With Sandra by his side, Iván makes the trek, but only barely; once situated in New York, their abode is miserly, their work thankless and exhausting. Iván refuses to give up, and by pure chance lands a job in a real kitchen. Gerardo, by no reasonable explanation other than love, joins him on the other side. As the film enters its final act, we’re flooded by footage of the real, middle-aged Iván and Gerardo living happy lives in the city, their love on full display. Now firmly in the present-day, we see Iván looking at pictures of his son, a teenager, on his phone; as an undocumented immigrant, he cannot return to Mexico without being stuck there and barred from reentry into the U.S., despite owning multiple businesses. Caught between a native country that abhors their lifestyle, and an adopted home eager to kick them out, Iván and Gerardo cling to each other—the one thing brought from their past lives into the future—as their memories of Mexico grow more distant by the year. “Are their memories of me fading too?” Iván wonders of his family back in Puebla.

Ewing’s script occasionally opts for plainly stated truisms that border on the clichéd. And in carrying the representational burden of depicting gay, undocumented immigrants, the film bucks under the obligation of advancing an unambiguously positive image. (It is refreshing, however, to see a movie about Latino immigrants not completely awash in grueling tragedy.) Ewing’s triumph is in capturing a palpable sense of place: the puffy, dandelion-yellow quinceañera dress that Iván once tried on as a kid; the slick cobblestone streets; a glass case of bejeweled tiaras; a knockout lip-sync performance of Amanda Miguel’s “Él me mintió,” a staple among Latinx drag queens. “Sometimes I confuse dreams with memories,” says Iván, returning to an image introduced at the start of the film—himself as a child, skateboarding with his father, who admires his son with glowing pride. The fantasy throws the backstory’s claim to truth into question. Yet in doing so, it boldly declares that dreams and desires are as meaningful to the construction of identity as the tough realities that comprise one’s sociopolitical circumstances.