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‘I Carry You With Me’ tells a love story that’s both ethereal and deeply real

Christian Vázquez, left, and Armando Espitia in “I Carry You With Me.” (Alejandro Lopez Pineda/Sony Pictures Classics)
(4 stars)

Dreams make up both the form and substance of “I Carry You With Me,” Heidi Ewing’s accomplished narrative feature debut.

Ewing is already well known in the nonfiction world, where she made such documentaries as “The Boys of Baraka,” “Detropia” and the Oscar-nominated “Jesus Camp” with her directing partner Rachel Grady. Here, she brings the subtle observational values of those films to bear on a tender love story that is both ethereal and rooted in all-too-real life.

Aspiring chef Ivan (Armando Espitia) meets a teacher named Gerardo (Christian Vázquez) at a nightclub in the provincial city of Puebla, Mexico. The attraction is immediate, but there are complications: Ivan has a 5-year-old son whose mother might take visitation away if she discovers that Ivan is gay. Gerardo, the son of a prosperous cattle ranching family, has his own battles to fight with his violently homophobic father. Desperate to fulfill culinary aspirations that have been thwarted in Mexico, Ivan makes the decision to immigrate to America, uncertain if he will see his son or Gerardo again.

These plot points make “I Carry You With Me” sound like a by-the-numbers melodrama, injected with hot-button issues like gay and immigrant rights. But in Ewing’s sensitive hands, this story is anything but routine. Filming her protagonists with the same intense subjectivity she brings to her nonfiction work, she gives the couple’s budding romance and struggles a sense of immediacy and naturalism, tinged with the otherworldly mists of memory. Gracefully following Ivan and Gerardo from a discreet but keen-eyed distance, she frames them carefully, often against blocks of jewel-like, luminescent color and spectacular sunsets. Toggling back and forth in time and space — Yael Tadeo and Nery Arredondo play younger versions of Ivan and Gerardo, respectively — Ewing creates a world that feels both realistically grounded and fanciful, as if it’s unspooling in Ivan’s constantly evolving imagination, an effect heightened by his interior meditations, which form the film’s narration. With her rich color palette and mouthwatering close-ups of the food Ivan lovingly prepares, Ewing concocts a film that, for all its painful conflicts and setbacks, never stints on the lyrical pleasures of life.

“I Carry You With Me” is made up of elegantly composed set pieces, each of which conveys volumes, whether it’s the reaction of Ivan’s father when he discovers his young son trying on a frilly quinceañera dress or a tentative flirtation that will eventually give way to a quietly thrilling first kiss. Once Ivan makes his way to New York and a series of menial car-washing and delivery jobs, “I Carry You With Me” promises to be a drama every bit as heartbreaking as Gregory Nava’s shattering 1983 drama “El Norte.”

It’s then that Ewing’s ambitions become clear, as she turns this story into something all her own. Elements of “I Carry You With Me” that are ambiguously presented at first come more fully into focus, and Ivan and Gerardo’s love story takes on even more overwhelming power. Ewing joins a generation of filmmakers who are using every piece of cinematic grammar available to communicate the emotional core of their stories and characters, fusing the impressionistic liberties of drama with more visceral truths to startling and potent effect. In “I Carry You With Me,” those feelings have to do with the propulsive push of ambition and the pull of home, and whether Ivan — or anyone — can reconcile those equally inexorable forces. In this affecting portrait of two unforgettable protagonists, Ewing rejects tidy answers in favor of leaning into — and bravely living into — the toughest questions.

R. At the Angelika Film Center Mosaic. Contains strong language and brief nudity. In Spanish with subtitles. 111 minutes.