Director Heidi Ewing makes a powerful narrative debut with I Carry You with Me, a dreamy and tender, decades-spanning story about love, sacrifice, memory and immigration.
The central character is Ivn (Armando Espitia), an aspiring chef who we meet in Mexico as hes struggling to get a spot in a kitchen and to make enough money to support his son. His boss, who has him washing dishes and fixing toilets, tells him to be patient. Ivns culinary school degree and talent are of no interest to the boss, who fills an open kitchen position with a relative in need.
Then one night Ivn meets the handsome Gerardo (Christian Vzquez), a teacher who, unlike him, is out as a gay man. They begin a passionate affair that Ivn tries to keep secret from everyone. He fears that his sons mother wont let Ivn see him if hes outed and his own mother wont understand. When it looks like hes about to be exposed, he makes the decision to cross over into America with his best friend, Sandra (a heartbreakingly good Michelle Rodrguez), and to just leave it all behind for the hope of better opportunities in the U.S. The way the characters living in Mexico talk about those whove made the crossing, it sounds akin to disappearing forever.
New York is hardly a promised land for Ivn at first either, who is still not able to get a break in a kitchen and ends up working as a janitor and deliveryman. Hes also achingly lonely and isolated, with only Gerardo as a lifeline.
The film cuts back and forth between past and present freely, with some devastating flashbacks to both Ivn and Gerardos childhoods and their fraught relationships with their own fathers.
Because of the structure, we know early that Ivn achieves his dream and makes it as a chef in New York. But it also becomes abundantly clear that his promises to return to his son have not been fulfilled. There are too many complications with being undocumented and the threat of deportation looms always. Its a gut punch to realize on one of their facetime conversations that the little boy he left in Mexico is now a grown man.
Ewing, who has previously co-directed documentaries, co-wrote the screenplay with Alan Page Arriaga. They based it on the real story of an acclaimed New York chef. The project even started out as documentary before evolving into a hybrid of sorts, with actors portraying the younger versions of Ivn and Gerardo. The way the non-linear elements come together sometimes disrupts the overall flow and poignancy of key moments, but the film is always engaging and emotionally authentic.
Mexican cinematographer Juan Pablo Ramrez does wonders with the camera, too, capturing the very different energies of Mexico and New York. Mexico also exists mainly as a nostalgic idea for Ivn and is given an even dreamier quality.
I Carry You with Me couldnt be any more specific about the trials of an undocumented gay couple trying to carve out a place for themselves, but its that specificity that makes its themes and emotions all the more universal. By the end, Ivns losses, triumphs and memories good and bad start to feel like your own.
I Carry You with Me, a Sony Pictures Classics release in theaters Friday, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for language and brief nudity. Running time: 111 minutes. Three stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr