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Review: Love crosses the border in 'I Carry You With Me,' a film that defies any walls

Eric Webb
Austin 360
Christian Vazquez in a scene from "I Carry You With Me."

Now, I am not saying I will hijack the nation’s airwaves and begin a pirate broadcast of “I Carry You With Me,” straight to every home in an angry country that rewards small and fearful hearts.  

I’m not saying it, because I don’t know how to do that, and because I would not last long in prison. But if you have the know-how and a good lawyer, you just might be compelled to give the widest possible audience to director Heidi Ewing’s inventive docu-drama about love and borders, in theaters Friday.

Brimming with kindness and affection, Ewing’s film draws from the lives of two of her friends, Iván García and Gerardo Zabaleta. They’re a gay couple who emigrated from Mexico a couple of decades ago, undocumented, in hopes of living openly and free from homophobic persecution. 

You can imagine that leaving family behind to live in the U.S. has been something of a devil’s bargain. 

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Ewing, a documentary filmmaker, plays with memory by making a hybrid movie. The couple’s early lives in Mexico and journeys to the U.S. are presented as a fictionalized adaptation, shot as a gorgeous indie drama. The modern depiction of Iván and Gerardo’s lives bookends the story, presented via much more naturalistic documentary footage.  

In 1990s Mexico, we find a younger Iván (played by Armando Espitia) as a dishwasher hoping to be a chef one day. He’s separated from the mother of his son and so rarely gets to see his boy. When he can, Iván makes it to a clandestine gay bar in Puebla, where he meets young scholar Gerardo (played by Christian Vazquez). The two fall in love, but the world of machismo that surrounds them has blunt, unrelenting fists; the lack of opportunity, too, is stifling. Iván and boyhood friend Sandra (Michelle Rodriguez) make the treacherous journey across the border to Texas, where an uncertain future of loneliness lies in wait. 

Armando Espitia, left, and Michelle Rodriguez play best friends crossing the Mexico-U.S. border in a scene from "I Carry You With Me."

Memory’s a slippery snake, and reconstructing the past for the screen is like the ultimate scrapbooking project. Which images make the cut, and how are they framed? (And do you use stickers?) Ewing lends the story of her friends’ lives weight and beauty. The colors pulse and blush and bleed off the screen — an ocean in a dusk sky, furtively joyful bodies in a secret bar seen through watermelon-tinted glasses, the next dawn’s rosy fire. Our minds condense and display our most sacred memories with intensity, and they might not much resemble the mundane way they happened the first time around. It’s swell that the place and time that inspired these men to make such impossible decisions is reimagined with rapture. 

And Espitia and Vasquez rise to the occasion, too, their chemistry a lively thing that demands protection, no matter the borders to be crossed. The ebullient Rodriguez deserves special praise, anchoring both the lightest moments of “I Carry You With Me” and its most absolutely crushing one, a wrenching scene during the characters’ treacherous border crossing that won’t be shaken easily.  

It’s difficult to critique the story itself, knowing its origin in the real world. Flashbacks to brutish fathers who deny their sons’ full personhood. Harrowing gay bashings on the street. A forbidden rendezvous corroded by talk of learning to pass for straight in polite society. For a lot of “I Carry You With Me,” it’s hard not to think of how often we’ve seen these scenes. 

By fusing them to moving images of the real-life Iván and Gerardo, though, Ewing does move the tropes forward. These clichéd cinematic moments of trauma recur, perhaps, because such trauma recurs in the real world. 

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You gotta see “I Carry You With Me” as a vehicle for empathy. At its most laudable, going to the movies is a mind-expanding act. You can read as many news stories you want, or listen to as many podcasts as your friends can recommend. But seeing people on a screen move as you do and speak as you do has a tendency to set all those abstracts about compassion for your fellow man into a nice, sturdy concrete. 

There are limits to what Ewing’s film can do in that regard. Some characters — real people — get flattened in the retelling, chiefly the men’s fathers and the mother of Iván's son. You don’t gather that the former deserve generous portrayals, though here they’re little more than boogeymen. Sandra, especially in Rodriguez’s hands, particularly begs for deeper exploration, considering her obvious importance to both the story of “I Carry You With Me” and to the real Iván. (Quick, think about which one of your friends would need to be in your biopic.) 

The film also leaves you wanting to know the “real” Iván and Gerardo a little better. Ewing’s documentary portrayals of the men are watchful, and a little removed. But considering these men have been brave enough to share their stories with a filmmaker and an audience in a country that officially wants them gone yesterday, they deserve whatever lens made them most comfortable. You hope it's this one. They owe no one the truth they’ve told.  

That’s part of why “I Carry You With Me” feels rare, and essential to find an audience. It strikes me that the flicks meant to inspire empathy for the groups often demonized by demagogues rarely become mainstream cultural phenomenons. Our media is so siloed. If you seek out an indie flick like this, you might be on the more receptive, or at least curious, end of the population already.

It’s increasingly unlikely that a movie can speak to everyone all at once. I just know it’s harder — it should be harder — to hoard your softest parts as you stare a person in the eyes and see that the pain levied for their difference is neither trick nor myth. However many ways a story can be told for good, and by however many people, is worth trying. This film tries the telling at least a couple ways, and any audience would be better for lending their effort.

Armando Espitia, left, and Christian Vazquez play Iván and Gerardo, based on real-life friends of "I Carry You With Me" director Heidi Wagner.

'I Carry You With Me'

Grade: A-

Starring: Armando Espitia, Christian Vázquez, Michelle Rodríguez

Director: Heidi Ewing

Rated: R for language and brief nudity

Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes

Watch: In theaters