This is a re-post of my I Am Michael review from the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. The movie is now playing in select theaters and is available on VOD.
James Franco makes/is in a lot of movies. The guy’s artistic hunger is constantly racing from one project to the next, but co-writer/director James Kelly’s drama I Am Michael (which Franco produced) feels like one that’s close to his heart. Based on a true story, Franco plays gay rights activist Michael Glatze, who subsequently went on to renounce his homosexuality and become a Christian pastor. It’s a sad story of a man having a crisis of identity, and while Kelly’s film at times feels like it doesn’t quite go deep enough, strong performances and perfectly pitched emotional beats make it one worth telling.
When we are first introduced to Michael Glatze in 1998, he is a happy, vibrant, well-educated gay rights activist with a passion for helping other people. His main outlet for his natural-born leadership skills is as the managing editor of XY Magazine, a gay periodical based in San Francisco. He’s in a loving relationship with his architect boyfriend Bennett (Zachary Quinto), whom he follows to Halifax when Bennett lands a new job.
While Michael and Bennett’s relationship is somewhat strained by the move, they both eventually bring young college student Tyler (Charlie Carver) into their relationship, and the three set out to make a documentary about queer youth in America. During their trip, they come across a young student at a predominantly conservative university (he describes it as “Falwell territory”), who identifies as a gay Christian, saying “What God would punish you for finding love?”. This somewhat vexes Michael, who with the rest of his gay community friends has seen Christians as the enemy due to their hateful rhetoric and the consequences of said rhetoric, like the murder of Matthew Shepard.
Michael becomes a bit more ponderous after this meeting, taking some time alone to consider his place in the universe and whether he’ll ever see his mother—“his best friend”—again following her death years earlier. When a health scare rocks Michael to his core, he fixates on the question of what happens after death, and seeks solace in the Bible. Bennett and Tyler are seemingly annoyed with Michael’s fixation and interest in Christianity, again due to the strong hate speech that they’ve faced from firsthand experience. Their position is somewhat understandable if not exactly compassionate, but their strong refusal to take Michael’s interest seriously pushes him further away.
As Michael turns to outside sources for some insight on reconciling his sexuality with the faith of Christianity, the rhetoric of talk radio and religion-themed books influences his stance and leads him to the conclusion that there is no combining the two—homosexuality is a sin, and he must repent in order to become a Christian. That the prospect of being both gay and Christian (ie. not rendering the two mutually exclusive) is not really explored further is one of the film’s regrettable oversights.
There’s nothing wrong with Michael’s interest in faith in and of itself, but his reason for wanting to convert is a selfish one: he wants to go to heaven and see his parents again. While Michael has always prided himself on his desire to help others, he becomes fixated only on himself and how he can rectify this issue. Eventually he decides to renounce his sexuality altogether and go off to Bible school in order to become a pastor. But while his personal blog evokes confidence and determination in his new stance, his actions are less convincing and speak to an air of uncertainty that swells in his mind.
The beginning of I Am Michael is a bit shaky, as Kelly paints the film more as a biopic than a personal drama. The film tries to cover too much ground in order to set up the foundation of what’s to come, but once it settles into considering Michael’s thought process, it digs deep into the characters and their inner struggles. Franco is excellent as the titular Michael, bringing a nuanced portrait of the character to life—we can see the fight going on inside Michael’s head through his veneer of confidence, and Franco plays this fascinating arc beautifully.
Quinto is also great as Bennett, if a bit underutilized. There comes a key scene towards the end of the film, however, where he absolutely nails his character’s complicated relationship with the now-heterosexual Michael in a way that’s somewhat unexpected. And while Carver’s Tyler is a relatively minor character, he also gets a crucial scene in which he really shines.
Emma Roberts is solid as a fellow Bible school classmate with whom Michael tries to strike a heterosexual relationship, and she smartly handles the character not as a parody but as a real human being. Kelly’s reluctance to paint Christians as caricatures is one of the film’s strengths. He’s not interested in demonizing those of the faith, only in considering how Michael’s denial fuels his further desire to become more Christlike.
Essentially what drives Michael is fear. Fear of never seeing his parents again, fear of leading the wrong life, and fear of being alone. He’s constantly blogging about his strong faith and complete rejection of the homosexual lifestyle, while privately trying to rectify his feelings for another man with his desire to go to heaven. He’s clearly in denial and constantly feels the need to prove his new lifestyle to others in often hurtful ways, and his attempt to find other outlets for his true creative and leadership passions prove unconvincing.
And while this portrait of Michael is interesting and indeed showcases some strong performances, it still feels somehow incomplete, like there’s a final chapter yet to be told. There are only so many times we can see the cycle of Michael staying steadfast, feeling doubt, then becoming strong in faith again, and at the end of the day it’s still a bit unclear what he truly believes. I’m not really sure he even knows, but the film ends at more of a stopping point than a conclusion.
At its core, I Am Michael is a sad story. This man who had so much to give, and indeed encouraged a number of young gays with his compassionate and reassuring writings in XY, becomes so consumed by his own doubt that he’s no longer helping people, he’s hurting them. It’s not just the fact that Michael would deny his own self in order to conform to some belief system, it’s that he’s doing it for entirely selfish reasons, not out of any strong sense of conviction or commitment to truth. That’s the tragedy of Michael, and while the film may not paint a complete portrait, it chronicles his story in a way that’s both fascinating and heartbreaking.