By David Canfield
January 27, 2020 at 12:30 PM EST
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Alejandro Lopez Pineda/Courtesy of Sundance

On Sunday, two of the best films to screen as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival premiered at the Park City Library, each unfolding a tale about the pursuit of a better life. These immigration stories develop in complex, challenging, and heartfelt ways, pleas for empathy that double as reality checks. They’re exploring urgent yet timeless ideas with humanistic touches. But more than that, they’re dramas of great feeling, standouts sure to be talked about more in the coming months for their artful, passionate representations of the voiceless.

I Carry You With Me, marking the narrative debut of Oscar-nominated director Heidi Ewing (Jesus Camp), is a gay story and a border story, told in the universal language of love, family, and dreams. The film begins in mid-’90s Mexico: Iván (Armando Espita), a young aspiring chef working cleanup for a restaurant, meets Gerardo (Christian Vazquez), a wealthy, suave graduate student, at a gay bar. They lock eyes, they talk, they kiss, they fall for each other. And then things, as they do, get complicated. Ewing and cinematographer Juan Pablo Ramirez lend their courtship an immediate romantic sweep, the handheld camerawork and intimate blocking contrasted with vibrant depictions of Puebla City and surrounding areas, as well as a wrenching score that swells and fades to the rhythms of these men’s lives.

Iván, who is closeted and a father, finds life in Mexico becoming untenable: His ex and his mother catch him at home with Gerardo, and ban from seeing his son; despite a formal culinary education, he sees no path to moving up from dishwasher. So he decides to cross the border, to take a chance on himself. “You could die,” he’s told. (We’ll hear this warning expressed again later.) Iván leaves Gerardo behind, but they promise to reconnect in a year. We watch Iván’s harrowing journey into the U.S., and he later goes to New York, where instead of opportunity he meets alienation and fear. Over a year passes, and Gerardo realizes he doesn’t want to live without Iván. After failing to find a legal pathway despite his family’s resources, he chooses to make the dangerous trek, too.

In Ewing’s hands and as anchored by two superb performances, Iván and Gerardo’s romance gets scaled up to an epic, a searing saga of the undocumented experience in which love is the binding force. Ewing skirts around clichés, but this feels appropriate, engaged as she is with the nuances of queer Mexican identity (flashbacks to both men’s childhood are quietly heartbreaking) and making a film geared toward their beauty — their right to exist within a big, emotional, traditional film. She throws a daring formal twist our way in an extended epilogue, propelled by astonishing revelation. It’s gratifying, for one thing, but more piercingly reinforces the continuity of this narrative: the costs of leaving one life behind for another, the darker truths of American life, and the hope that must exist — even in times as scary as these — for those searching, simply, for a way to be themselves in this world.

Sundance Institute

If I Carry You With Me is more concerned with reaching for the American Dream, then the ‘80s-set Minari, the gorgeous new movie from director Lee Isaac Chung (Abigail Harm), takes a subtle look at the aftermath, when the fantasy has long been plunged into reality. It’s a modest family portrait, a little light on plot but beguiling in a sort of episodic nature, tracking its Korean-American heroes as they relocate from California to Arkansas in order to start over — again.

Jacob (Steven Yeun) moves his family into a home “on wheels,” with plans to start a farm and become self-sufficient. He was wasting away on the West Coast, working as a chicken-sexing expert, and feels determined to show his children that he can accomplish more for himself. But he’s put strain on his family: He’s distant from his wife, Monica (Yeri Han), and they fight viciously; their economic situation appears dire.

Minari works quietly and methodically, embracing its lush rural setting with striking glimpses of its characters, alone against vast and empty landscapes. Chung’s directing feels drawn from memory, the scattered and sparkling quality of recollections, carefully assembled. It’s perhaps why every second rings so true.

As Monica struggles to adjust to small-town life, Jacob agrees to bring her mother Soonja (Yuh-Jung Youn) in from Korea to live with them, jolting the film in increasingly poignant fashion. Youn’s titanically funny performance as Soonja is the movie’s highlight, and the dynamic she establishes with Alan Kim — who plays youngest child David with precocious excellence — is its heart. They go from combative (you know, that old “grandson tricks grandma into drinking pee” thing) to inseparable, their distinctively Korean and American identities merging to show the family a new kind of path.

There’s great despair around them — a crumbling marriage, a flailing farm, health scares — but in their dynamic there is joy, a sense of the future. Here, then, Chung interrogates the legacy of immigration — how it evolves, from generation to generation, and how expectations are inherited and refracted. The realism of Minari, so vivid throughout, takes sharp turns in both directions in its final act, before a tragedy seems to extinguish whatever hope may have been left. But of course, it doesn’t — not quite. For immigration, in both of these films, is an act of hope — a chance, a risk, a dream. And an act of love, too.

I Carry You With Me: A-
Minari: A-

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