“The Last Match,” opening Friday [Jan 24] at the Coral Gables Cinema, is a sexy and affecting drama directed and co-written by Antonio Hems, about Reinier (Reinier Díaz) and Yosvani (Milton García) falling in love amid poverty in Cuba. These two young men, who are also romantically involved with different women, hide their intense relationship, meeting secretly for sex on rooftops and in restrooms.

Reinier who is a talented soccer player, also has sex with Juan (Toni Cantó), a Spaniard he picks up on the Malecón, for money. But when Juan helps Reinier get into a soccer academy, his relationship with Yosvani threatens to destroy the future for both young men.

Hems, who lives in Spain, spoke about making “The Last Match” via Skype. He explained that he chose to tell a story about two teens having a gay affair, “Because people who are openly gay have no conflicts; they are not dramatic characters that want to change something in their lives. I see the life of boys who are suffering because they are gay and cannot show who they are. Because it is hard to be gay in Cuba and Latin America.”

Fun Fact: The theme of closeted sexuality was also the subject of the director’s 2000 short “Doors Cut Down,” (which can be found on the “Boys Briefs 2” DVD) about a gay teen who has sexual assignations with strangers in a mall restroom.

Hems chose to make “The Last Match” in Cuba in part because he had visited the country several times for film projects and had earned the trust of the authorities. He said they “knew I was not revolutionary. I was going to focus on gay life there,” and confirms he had no problems filming. Well, other than the heat. Shooting in August in high temperatures with 99 percent humidity did send some of the actors to the hospital with sunburns.

To prepare for the film, Hems did copious research. He found someone who provided the foundation for the character of Reinier. “He attended a soccer academy and explained how the schools worked, what the difficulties were. He showed us his neighborhood football field and mates,” the filmmaker recalled. Hems also spent a month doing exercises in a theater space with his lead actors, Díaz and García. He needed to help these teens create the sexual identities of— and tension between — Reinier and Yosvani. “They needed to find the emotional world of the characters and how they related. It was hard; they were 17 and living in a macho society, where men do not express emotions to one another.”

The filmmakers continued to explain that the actors did not rehearse the script in these workshop sessions, but sought to find identification points — such as shared experiences — and did improvisational work to find the emotional connection that conveys the unspoken desires between the two friends-turned-lovers. This helped them portray how they look at each other, how they kissed, and touched each other. The erotic bond on screen between the guys is quite palpable. Likewise, actor Toni Cantó helped Díaz get comfortable with the extensive nudity by remaining naked on set the entire day of shooting a love scene. Díaz, Hems reported, did the same.

The film’s intimate sexuality was important as “The Last Match” features several passionate moments that express more than just the characters’ desires. A significant scene in which Reinier penetrates Yosvani is depicted tastefully—Hems focused on a close-up of García’s’ head and Díaz’s hands as they consummate their relationship—because the emotional impact of this moment is pivotal. After sex, Yosvani’s demeanor towards Reinier changes. He seethes with jealousy at Juan’s relationship with Reinier.

However, Reinier is reluctant to accept or articulate his same-sex desires. As Hems observed, “The story of ‘The Last Match’ is not about Reinier and Yosvani fighting to be gay, but Reinier fighting himself about what he truly feels.”

In contrast, the gay character of Juan comes to Cuba specifically so he can have sex with men. While Hems acknowledged that Spain is very comfortable with homosexuality—he noted that it was the first country to allow for same-sex marriage—there is one area of Spanish culture that is homophobic, and that is sports.

“That’s why Juan, who works in the sports world, comes to Cuba. He wants to have his sexual experiences, and Cuba is a place for sex tourism.” Still, he understands that, “The average Spaniard who goes to Cuba to have sex with guys is not a coach of a soccer team, but I decided, Why not make this character like that?”

The decision enhances the film, as the three characters are complex and their love triangle is engaging. Viewers will care what happens to each of them “The Last Match” builds to its emotional climax.