Review: ‘I Carry You With Me,’ starring Armando Espitia, Christian Vázquez, Michelle Rodríguez, Ángeles Cruz, Arcelia Ramírez and Michelle González

July 5, 2021

by Carla Hay

Armando Espitia and Christian Vázquez in “I Carry You With Me” (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

“I Carry You With Me”

Directed by Heidi Ewing

Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Mexico and New York City, the dramatic film “I Carry With You With Me” features a cast of predominantly Latino characters (with some white people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two Mexican men in a gay love affair reach a crossroads in the relationship when one of the men wants to move to the United States to pursue his dream of becoming a chef.

Culture Audience: “I Carry You With Me” will appeal primarily to people interested in movies about Mexican culture, the LGBTQ community and immigrant experiences in the United States.

Michelle Rodríguez and Armando Espitia in “I Carry You With Me” (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

The emotionally stirring drama “I Carry You With Me” tells a real-life epic love story between two Mexican men who have different struggles over their sexuality, immigration and what it means to follow a dream. It’s also a poignant story about what it means to sacrifice for love and for personal ambition. And it’s a tale of self-discovery and identity that tests the old adage, “Home is where the heart is.”

“I Carry You With Me” is the first narrative feature film from Heidi Ewing, a filmmaker who’s mostly known for her documentaries, such as the Oscar-nominated 2006 film “Jesus Camp” and the 2012 film “Detropia.” Ewing didn’t completely leave her non-fiction filmmaking behind for “I Carry You With Me,” because Iván Garcia and Gerardo Zabaletae—the real-life men who became a couple in this story—portray themselves as middle-aged men in the unscripted scenes, which are a small but important part of the movie. The majority of the movie’s scenes are scripted, with actors portraying Garcia and Zabaletae as their younger selves. “I Carry You With Me” takes place and was filmed in Mexico and in New York City.

Ewing co-wrote the “I Carry You With Me” screenplay with Alan Page Arriaga. And the idea for the movie came by chance, when Garcia and Zabaletae (who are longtime friends of Ewing) told Ewing their very personal story of how they met, fell in love, and faced immense challenges in their relationship. These difficulties included hiding their romance from homophobic family members, as well as the threat of being torn apart when Garcia moved from Mexico to New York City to pursue his dream of becoming a chef.

According to the “I Carry You With Me” production notes, Garcia and Zabaletae revealed the detailed history of their relationship to Ewing in 2012, when they were all at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Garcia and Zabaletae had no idea at the time that their story would be made into a movie. Ewing says in the production notes: “We had been friends for so long, since before any of our careers took off, but I just didn’t know the details of all they had experienced. So on the plane ride home from Sundance, I wrote everything down that I could remember and sent myself an email called ‘The Mexican Love Story.’ A seed had been planted in my head and I was like, ‘Uh oh, this isn’t going to leave me.'”

Although scenes in “I Carry You With Me” take place in multiple decades, most of the film takes place in the 1990s, during the first few years of Garcia and Zabaletae’s relationship, when they were in their 20s. They met in Puebla, Mexico, in 1994, when Iván (played by Armando Espitia) was a dishwasher at a local restaurant but dreaming of one day becoming a chef. Although this story is about a couple, it’s told mainly from Iván’s perspective.

At this point in his life, Iván is still mostly “in the closet” about his sexuality. He’s a single father to a son named Ricky (played by Paco Luna), who’s about 4 or 5 years old. Iván is a devoted and loving father to Ricky, but Iván is embarrassed that he can barely pay child support. Iván is also terrified that he would lose visitation rights if Ricky’s mother Paola (played by Michelle González) found out that Iván is gay. Paola already has a tense relationship with Iván because he doesn’t make enough money to buy the things that she wants for Ricky.

One of the few people in Iván’s life who knows about his true sexuality is his best friend Sandra (played by Michelle Rodríguez), who has been his closest confidant since they were children. There are flashbacks to their childhood, when Sandra (played by Alexia Morales) and Iván (played by Yael Tadeo), at about 9 or 10 years old, would play dress-up in women’s clothing and wear makeup. Iván’s mother Rosa Maria (played by Ángeles Cruz) is a dressmaker, so Iván has easy access to the gowns that she makes as part of her work.

The movie shows what happens when Iván’s father Marcos (played by Raúl Briones) comes home one day and sees Iván and Sandra during one of their “dress-up” play sessions. He’s surprised and disgusted at seeing his son in drag, but Marcos stops short of physically abusing Iván over it. As for Iván’s mother Rosa Maria, if she ever suspected that Iván was gay, she chooses to be in denial over it, because even into his adulthood, she believes Iván’s claims that he has been dating only women.

The movie doesn’t go into details about Iván and Paola’s failed relationship. But by the time that Iván meets Gerardo, it’s obvious that Iván and Paola will not be getting back together. Iván and Paola are only in each other’s lives because they’re co-parenting Ricky. Paola is portayed as someone who is constantly stressed-out over her finances and disappointed in Iván for not being a better provider for Ricky. However, Paola has a good relationship with Iván’s mother Rosa Maria, who is very present in her grandson Ricky’s life.

Iván and Gerardo meet at a gay nightclub, where Iván has gone with Sandra, and Gerardo is by himself. Gerardo and Iván lock eyes with each other, in the way that people do when they’re immediately attracted to each other. Gerardo makes it clear from the beginning that he’s very interested in Iván because he gets Iván’s attention by shining a red pen light on him.

It isn’t long before Iván and Gerardo make their way to each other and start having a flirtatious and easygoing conversation at the nightclub. The romantic sparks between them are immediate, and they end up kissing the first night that they meet. On the night that they meet, Gerardo is very open about being gay and says that he “escaped” from his hometown of Chiapas, thereby implying that he has a homophobic family too.

Iván isn’t as forthcoming about his own family background. For example, Iván doesn’t tell Gerardo right away that Iván is the father of a child. Gerardo finds out another way, which causes the first big conflict in Iván and Gerardo’s relationship. By this time, Iván and Gerardo have become lovers, and Gerardo is aware that Iván is “in the closet” to almost everyone, but Gerardo doesn’t know to the extent why Iván is so paranoid about it.

By contrast, Gerardo isn’t afraid to live openly as a gay man while he’s been in Puebla. One of Gerardo’s closest friends is a drag queen named Cucusa Minelly (played by Luis Alberti), who is concerned about Gerardo getting his heart broken by the closeted Iván. Gerardo goes to see Cucusa’s drag queen act in a nightclub, and he walks down the street with Cucusa while Cucusa wears heavy makeup. It’s something that Iván would never do at this point in his life.

Gerardo works as a teaching assistant at the University of Puebla. He owns an apartment. And it’s later revealed that he comes from a somewhat well-to-do rancher family in Chiapas. Gerardo’s mother Magda (played by Arcelia Ramírez) and Gerardo’s father César (played by Pascacio López) know that Gerardo is gay, but they don’t like to talk about it. It’s evident when Gerardo takes Iván home to Chiapas to meet his family (Gerardo’s parents, his two younger sisters and younger brother), during the family’s birthday celebration for Gerardo. Iván is described as Gerardo’s “best friend” to the family.

Over dinner in the family home, tensions begin to rise when Gerardo’s father César asks Iván what he does for a living. Gerardo lies and says that Iván is a chef. However, Iván corrects him and says that he’s a dishwasher in a restaurant, while César reacts with a disapproving look on his face. It’s the first time that Iván sees that his sexuality wouldn’t be the only reason why he wouldn’t be completely accepted by Gerardo’s family.

Although Iván hides his sexuality from most of the people he knows, he refuses to lie about his social class, whereas Gerardo seems self-conscious with his family about being close to someone who has a menial, working-class job. Because Gerardo wanted to lie to his family about what Iván does for a living, it hurts Iván’s feelings that Gerardo seems to be ashamed of Iván’s social class. It won’t be the last time their social class differences will cause tension in Gerardo and Iván’s relationship.

The movie also has a harrowing flashback scene of Gerardo at about 8 or 9 years old being bullied by his father, who yells at Gerardo to stop acting like a girl. César is so angry about it that he drives Gerardo to a deserted farm field at night, abandons a frightened Gerardo there, and orders Gerardo not to come home until he can act like a boy. Gerardo ends up walking home by himself at night, in tears. It’s a very traumatic experience that is an example of what Gerardo had to endure until he was old enough to move away from his family.

Iván has become increasingly frustrated with his restaurant job. He had been patiently waiting for a year to get a promotion to become a line cook. But when that job opening occurs, the manager ends up hiring a nephew instead. Iván’s boss also dismissively tells Iván that Iván is lucky to have the dishwasher job and that it sometimes takes years to be promoted to a cook position.

Observant viewers will notice that Iván’s American Dream ambition is largely fueled by wanting to get out of his working-class rut. Meanwhile, Gerardo is more used to being in a comfortable financial situation, so he doesn’t have the same motivation as Iván does to start over and re-invent himself in another country. Something happens later in the movie that hastens Ivan’s plan to go to America, where Iván believes that he will have better opportunities to become a chef.

Iván’s decision to move to the United States as an undocumented immigrant is a turning point in his relationship with Gerardo. Sandra decides to go with Iván (their border crossing is one of the most tension-filled parts of the movie), but will Gerardo go too? That question is answered in the movie, which shows what happened after Iván moved to New York City. Iván’s decision to leave his son Ricky is something that haunts Iván and gives him a lot of guilt.

“I Carry You With Me” inevitably has tearjearking moments, but the movie is also filled with a lot of hope and realistic portrayals of a romance that is far from a fairy tale. There are layers to the story that authentically address the fear, loneliness and resentment that result from decisions made by Iván and Gerardo. The movie is also a keen observation of the American Dream from two different perspectives: one that sees the American Dream as a worthy goal, and one that sees the American Dream as the reason why loved ones are torn apart. And the movie doesn’t shy away from depicting the harsh realities of bigotry experienced by undocumented immigrants in the U.S. who aren’t white and who don’t have English as their first language.

All of the main actors give convincing performances, but Espitia’s portrayal of Iván is the one that will stay with viewers the most. Espitia has a wonderfully expressive face that can convey so much without saying a word. Gerardo has also gone through his share of trials and tribulations in this relationship and as a gay man, but Iván’s journey is more complicated because he has a child who will be forever affected by his decisions. “I Carry You With Me” is one couple’s real-life love story, but it has an outstanding way of speaking to larger issues of what people will do in the name of love and to make better lives for themselves.

Sony Pictures Classics and Stage 6 Films released “I Carry You With Me” in select U.S. cinemas on June 25, 2021.