Movie Review: Can love in “the joint” carry on after parole? “Luz”

“Luz” is a slow, soapy prison romance that, if nothing else, is not quite like any prison and “getting out” picture you’ve ever seen.

It comes at Latin machismo from a queer point of view, upending prison and post-prison life tropes one after the other. And if it was the least bit realistic and had even the tiniest hint of urgency about it, it could have amounted to something.

We meet Ruben on the day he checks into prison. He meets Carlos for the first time when they’re not-introduced as cellmates. And the guard who drops him off has barely cleared earshot when Carlos (Jesse Tayeh) turns his murderous glower into an assault.

There will be no rest for Ruben (Ernesto Reyes) in this California penitentiary, no letting down his guard. The gangs? How will he navigate them? The gay thug down the block who wants to “roll with” him? How will he negotiate that?

Thank heavens Carlos is there to coach him, teach him the “rules,” how to survive his sentence.

“You need to learn how to lose a fight…Always roll with somebody.” And “don’t associate with homosexuals.”

That last line is a lot more polite that homophobic, probably not the way one inmate would warn another about protecting his macho rep “inside.” But then, we’ve already seen Carlos turn from a seething, mistrusting enemy to an intimate friend in half a flash, with no more motivation than an intense locking-of-the-eyes or two.

Jon Garcia’s movie isn’t about “surviving in the yard,” finding a gang for protection or mastering “the system.” It’s about guys who attend mass in the chapel, start “sharing” their pasts (the “how you ended up here” story) and become more than intimate friends.

When roomies Ruben and Carlos scrape plastic shards into sharpened knives on the rough concrete walls of their cell, they’re making blades…to cut fruit and vegetables.

“Real men know how to cook,” Carlos counsels. As they move their relationship from “my brother” to “my lover,” he might add that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.

That’s what I mean by “soapy.” Hot sex scenes and a fascinating back story that reveals the transgender crush (Evie Riojas) Ruben once had “on the outside,” his mob boss’s “goddess,” “Luz” is one seriously corny riff on prison.

When Sal, the muscular pal who Carlos rolls with for protection, assures Ruben that “He loves you, man,” we have left “Midnight Express” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman” behind and entered a whole different level of gay prison fantasy.

The movie dawdles through all this, with Ruben professing determination to get “my daughter back” when he gets out. But when he gets out, his first act is tracking down the lover who left him in the lurch in the cell. Can their romance survive outside the same-sex petri dish of prison? That’s a lot more pressing than tracking down his only child.

Reyes, of TV’s “American Gods,” has matinee idol looks and real chemistry with Tayeh in a film that could be a big break for them both.

But this script is a real eye-roller.

Throw in prison, the whole gay gangster thing and grievances SLOWLY addressed, a daughter as an afterthought and the guilt over loving a transgender woman who did not profit from the relationship and you’ve got a picture with structural issues that overwhelm its messaging and LGBTQ film festivals written all over it. And even that audience will be checking its phones between love scenes.

MPA Rating: unrated, some violence, explicit sex, profanity

Cast:  Ernesto Reyes, Jesse Tayeh, Rego Lupa, Evie Riojas and Jimmy Garcia

Credits: Scripted and directed by Jon Garcia. A Dark Star release.

Running time: 1:58

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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