“I Carry You With Me” is an act of memory, of romance, and of friendship all in one — a movie that takes the kind of undocumented immigrants’ saga we think we know and recasts it in a dreamy, bittersweet light. It’s the first narrative film from the documentarian Heidi Ewing (“Jesus Camp”), who was so moved by the backstory of a couple she knew, the New York City chef Iván García and his partner, Gerardo Zabaleta, that she felt compelled to render it on film. The result is an epic both internal and external — a journey of cultures left behind, of family betrayed, and of love found, broken, and renewed.
Ewing’s documentary roots are reflected in a framing device that follows the real García through New York, his regrets and remembrances taking shape on the soundtrack. With a deftness that only occasionally turns muddled — Enat Sidi was the editor — “I Carry You With Me” crosscuts among the modern day; a younger Iván (Armando Espitia) in Puebla, Mexico, and 1990s New York; and flashbacks to his and Gerardo’s childhoods, in which cruel fathers did not deal well with effeminate sons.
The movie establishes Iván’s double existence in Puebla — he has a child from a youthful assignation, but neither the boy’s mother (Michelle González) nor Iván’s (Ángeles Cruz) know he’s gay — his culinary ambitions, and an impatience with life only partly eased by his meeting Gerardo (Christian Vazquez), a wealthy rancher’s son. Eventually his aims turn toward America, and with a close friend, Sandra (Michelle Rodríguez, a comic actress well-regarded in Mexico taking a moving dramatic role), Iván drops into the moonlit world of human coyotes and desperate desert treks.
Through camerawork and cutting, performances and score, “I Carry You With Me” turns a familiar story into specific, suspenseful drama, with details that snag the heart and last in the memory: Sandra near-collapse during the journey, an encounter with a sympathetic stranger at a crucial moment, Iván’s days and nights as a delivery man while waiting for his chance in the restaurant’s kitchen. The casual slurs from passing yuppies. The long-distance calls to an abandoned lover.
Spoiler alert: Gerardo eventually made it to New York, and today the couple are owner-partners in two successful Brooklyn restaurants. Yet the emotions of “I Carry You With Me” — its title possibly derived from a much-loved e.e. cummings poem — ache with the tug of home and relationships severed. Iván’s grown son (Paco Luna, seen via FaceTime) wants to visit his father but can’t get a visa; Iván can’t return to Mexico to see his dying father. On the soundtrack, he muses on his journey: “Janitor, dishwasher, line cook, chef, owner. Father. Immigrant. Mexican. I have memories that are fading away.” Ewing lights up those memories with all the skills at her disposal, and “I Carry You With Me” feels as though it unfolds in a perpetual magic hour, with a score by Jay Wadley that tenderly caresses the visuals. The film is a big hug, but the “you” of the title is a homeland, and it is many miles away.
I CARRY YOU WITH ME
Directed by Heidi Ewing. Written by Ewing and Alan Page Arriaga. Starring Armando Espitia, Christian Vazquez. In Spanish and English, with subtitles. At Kendall Square. 111 minutes. R (language and brief nudity).