A life-altering meeting between two men triggers the lifelong intersectional romance in Te llevo conmigo (I Carry You With Me), a Mexican LGBTQ drama by U.S. filmmaker Heidi Ewing, marking her first fiction feature. Non-linear in its construction, the timely story based on real-life stretches across two countries and over two decades withstanding homophobia and the perils of economic migration.

“I know how to pass,” says young chilango father and aspiring chef Iván (Armando Espitia). Doing so has allowed him to hide his sexual orientation so that he can avoid being shunned or physically hurt when flirting with a professor named Gerardo (Christian Vazquez) at a clandestine gay club in 1994 Puebla, Mexico. A spark ignites with a kiss under dreamlike skies – exploited for all their purple beauty by seasoned cinematographer Juan Pablo Ramírez – and leads to a bittersweet liaison.

Though set 10 years apart, “I Carry You With Me” recalls last year’s Esto no es Berlin (This Is Not Berlin) in that it grapples with Mexico’s deep-rooted traditionalism and heteronormativity. And while they differ in their social context, the concept of an underground place where queer people could congregate resonates as crucial in both.

Irregular like the pieces of a scattered puzzle, the structure takes detours from its main course in the form of flashbacks.

Irregular like the pieces of a scattered puzzle, the structure takes detours from its main course in the form of flashbacks to crucial instances in their shared journey and their conflicted childhoods, specifically to how their fathers reacted didn’t fit the macho mold. The eldest son to a hyper-masculine landowner, Gerardo learned the hard way that secrecy and suppression were lifelines. Its unique logic, of what’s seen first and when other information is disclosed, functions in service of great poignancy.

Ewing doesn’t reduce Iván and Gerardo to an identity; instead, with every revealing layer introduced, the filmmaker tries to see them in their totality. Her work is an example of how a foreigner can make art about those outside of her own background with utter respect. No trite renderings of Mexicans, migrants, or queer people here, which is the result of a filmmaker caring enough to immerse herself emotionally and culturally with the people she is depicting.

Financially pressed, Iván crosses the border to begin again up north, but the new environment brings with it a different kind of discrimination based on his ethnicity and immigration status. Puebla’s colonial beauty gives way to an arid frontier and eventually to the beguiling lights of New York City for a visual metamorphosis of the location that emphasizes the major existential change he’s accepted with the journey traveled.

Muted strength disguised as meekness shines through Espitia – most recently seen in the Guatemalan political drama Nuestras madres (Our Mothers) – as Iván fights the urge to return to his loved ones, his son above all, and strives to build a dream from scratch. Vazquez, instead, portrays a contrasting character arc that sees Gerardo go from an established professional with a cocky attitude to a lover literally willing to risk death for one more embrace. Together the emerging actors tantalize us by channeling the purity of the sentiments that guide their real counterparts. When they look into each other’s eyes, we know the darkness of the world subsides.

Notable among the supporting cast is stand-up comedian and TV actress Michelle Rodríguez – known in the Mexican entertainment industry for her comedic aptitude – as Sandra, Iván’s childhood friend who follows him to el gabacho. Talented beyond sprinkling lightness into this devastatingly moving piece of innovative cinema, Rodríguez voices the frustration that plagues the mind of someone who’s left all on the other side to be mistreated. “They hate us here,” she tells Iván.

Ravishing and unshakable, Ewing’s authentic film feels like the crossbreed between a painful memory and a hopeful dream.

Hybrid by design and likely borrowing from Ewing’s non-fiction expertise, I Carry With Me intersperses documentary footage of the real-life Iván and Gerardo, mostly in its third act, thriving in the Big Apple, where they can live their love out loud but carry the burden of being undocumented. Living in limbo, missing a distant homeland to which they can’t return and embracing a new home that’s eager to get rid of them, the couple holds on to their victories to mitigate the despair.

Ravishing and unshakable, Ewing’s authentic film feels like the crossbreed between a painful memory and a hopeful dream about a place, a relationship and a fight for acceptance that’s not political but entirely humanistic. “The American dream happens in slow motion, it takes years,” the real Iván muses in a lyrical voiceover adorning a montage that for an instant takes him back home and everything he renounced but keeps carrying with him, despite the distance, despite the time.

It’s impossible to remain immune to this visceral whirlwind of a movie. Heartbreak this acute, for the men on-screen and for us as an audience, must be washed away, even if only momentarily, with a stream of tears.

I Carry You With Me premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.