Film Review: I Am Michael

James Franco plays a gay-rights activist turned anti-gay Christian preacher in Justin Kelly’s thoughtful and searching but somewhat rootless drama based on a true story.
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When we first see Michael Glatze (James Franco), trying to counsel a fellow young Christian terrified of his same-sex attractions, he initially seems supportive and gentle. The kind of preacher who reaches out, rather than condemns. Even when he says that “gay doesn’t exist,” it scans as nonjudgmental. But when he gets to the leading question, “You want to go to heaven, right?” it’s obvious that Glatze is not going to be that kind of Christian.

Based on Benoît Denizet-Lewis’s 2011 New York Times magazine article “My Ex-Gay Friend,” I Am Michael is primarily the story of how Glatze got to be that preacher in that room talking that way. Writer-director Justin Kelly (King Cobra) cuts back to ten years earlier, when Glatze was less a khakis-and-oxford guy and more a dyed-blond raver in San Francisco’s Castro district. In the late 1990s, Glatze worked at XY Magazine, a youth-oriented gay publication. A staunch believer in queer theory, Glatze’s stated belief in one scene that “gay and straight are just social constructs” is part reflection of that desire to get traumatized gay youth in the Matthew Shepard years to stop letting labels define. It also echoes somewhat ominously with his later beliefs.

That setting, Glatze’s identity as proudly gay writer and activist, and his breezily joyful relationship with long-term boyfriend Bennett (Zachary Quinto) would seem a strong place to establish his character. But Kelly has no sooner introduced us to it than pulled it away. In 2000, the couple moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia, for Bennett’s work. Not long after, likely because of Glatze’s trouble keeping his own career going and his unresolved feelings about his parents’ dying when he was relatively young, he starts having panic attacks. Not long after, following an encounter with a gay Christian student during Glatze’s filming of a documentary about gay youth, his sharply manifested terror of mortality and fear of labels turn him toward the Bible. Following that, it’s a rocky but steady descent into uncertainty, denial, and outright condemnation of everything he once lived for.

In telling Glatze’s story, Kelly has a narrow path to follow. Using the article by Denizet-Lewis (a former friend and co-worker of Glatze’s at XY) as his road map means many questions will be left unanswered. Again, because so little time is spent establishing Glatze’s roots as a committed gay journalist and queer-theory activist, the depth of the shock felt over his about-face doesn’t quite pan out. This leaves the eminently reasonable and loving figure of Bennett, whom Quinto plays with a well-calibrated mixture of tenderness and perceptiveness, and Tyler (Charlie Carver)—a bright-eyed youngster whom the couple made part of their romantic lives—the job of registering disbelief over Glatze’s change.

Unfortunately, Franco isn’t given enough to work with in that department. Usually better suited to playing men in the grip of a mania, once his character turns toward conservative Christianity, Franco’s theological questing registers primarily in squints and a furrowed brow. (Given the more effective slow burn of Quinto’s performance, it may even have been preferable for Kelly to have swapped their roles.) The film tiptoes around some of the steps in Glatze’s religious transition, so that by the time he announces on his blog that he is no longer gay, the scene leaves more questions than it answers. This could be due to a desire on Kelly’s part not to overly embellish the inner life of a still-living person. Commendable though such a desire would be, it nevertheless leaves Glatze something of a void in the film’s last act.

Like Glatze in his earlier years, I Am Michael isn’t interested in pointing fingers or assigning labels. But in painting Glatze as more seeker than Bible-thumper, it also downplays the wrenching nature of his transformation, with only the occasional glimpse of angry Internet screeds to provide some glimpse of how the outside world saw his turnabout: betrayal by the gay community, triumphal hooting by the religious right. But by including so little of Glatze’s early career and then downplaying his later homophobic militancy, the film ends up feeling far too slight for a story about a man torn by such powerful beliefs.

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