Portland filmmaker Jon Garcia’s filmography puts the maxim “love conquers all” to a case-by-case trial. The obstacles to romantic fulfillment in the prolific writer-director’s 10 features are both formidable and wide ranging: Mormonism (The Falls), COVID-19 (Love in Dangerous Times), relocating to a new city (Tandem Hearts), and advanced age (Strictly for the Birds). Why not also pit love against incarceration?
The latest film from Garcia is Luz, an ambitious drama told in two distinct movements, beginning with cellmates Ruben (Ernesto Reyes) and Carlos (Jesse Tayeh) falling hard for each other inside Salem’s Oregon State Penitentiary. Initially, the two men embody recognizable archetypes. Ruben is slighter, prettier; he appears in need of protection on the inside. Carlos is burly, quick to anger, fitted with a chilly, thousand-yard stare. What is novel, in this barely existent subgenre of queer Latino prison cinema, is Garcia’s tender, unpretentious approach to developing the characters’ lives past where we first meet them.
“They say that the samurai had…bonds closer than [with] their wives,” Garcia explains. “The same could be said about soldiers, possibly. The bond you develop in a compromised situation like [prison] is quite strong. I wanted to explore that.”
One of the first tests for Luz was whether the production could actually find a prison for filming. When a minimum-security facility at the state penitentiary did come available, one of the film’s core themes flourished: how the constructs of incarceration could simultaneously pressurize and tear down judgment around queer relationships. That idea held true when an OSP inmate-turned-Luz extra asked Garcia about his film’s subject matter.
“I had some nervousness, but I told him it’s about two cellmates who fall in love,” says Garcia. “And the room gets all quiet and I’m dying to hear what they’re going to say. And the guy who asks me says, ‘Oh yeah, that happens all the time.’”
As Carlos, Tayeh—who’d worked mostly uncredited roles on network series like NCIS: Los Angeles and SEAL Team—imparts a rugged naturalism. Carlos’ hypermasculine swagger is believable, but he remains a rock-solid character even as it peels away. Though a viewer could easily read the performance as an exercise in conflicting modes of self-consciousness, Tayeh attributes his performance as Carlos to bone-deep Method acting.
“We made sure there was no time to be nervous,” Tayeh says, noting that Luz’s central (and extensively choreographed) sex scene was filmed on just the production’s second day. “After the first week, I was just 100% Carlos.”
Luz also doubles as an intellectual and instinctual dissection of machismo between the two Latino lovers. In fact, Garcia sought specific cultural definitions of machismo from University of Texas at Austin literature professor Lito Porto and transformed his answers into a monologue delivered by Garcia’s own mother (playing Carlos’ mom in the film.) That scholastic read is a bit of an outlier, though. Luz isn’t the kind of film to trade in much labeling. Instead, it rather soulfully settles on manhood being a complicated, evolving act—trying yes, but a hell of a lot better than living as an idea. Wordless, matter-of-fact affection even proved a guiding force on the Portland and Salem sets back in April 2019.
“Every scene, Jon [Garcia] would ask how it felt and then we would hug,” Tayeh says.
Even as his IMDb filmography is chock-full of gritty forthcoming independent films, Tayeh calls Luz nothing short of a “life-changer, as an actor and as a person.” As for mining the vast gallery of love’s opponents, Garcia (a self-described “forever single person”) isn’t done exploring new configurations. Strictly for the Birds, focused on two women who fall in love at a retirement community, is due out later this year.
“I’m asking myself the same question you’re asking me,” Garcia says of why he cherishes fraught romances. “I have a universal curiosity about love and the language of love.”
SEE IT: Luz streams on Apple TV, Google Play, Vudu and YouTube. It will be available on DVD on May 11.