Movie Review - I Am Michael
This film premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Justin Kelly, a music video director and protégé of Gus Van Sant, wrote and directed this movie as his feature debut. It played at several festivals but didn't get distribution for a while. In the meantime, Kelly wrote and directed his second feature, King Cobra, which premiered at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival and got distribution within a few months, probably because it was about a provocative murder. This movie isn't provocative in a violent sense.
It's provocative in another sense, a more controversial sense that makes one wonder why Franco even agreed to do this. It's the true-life story of Michael Glatze, a man who renounced his homosexuality and became a Christian pastor. It's essentially the biography of a man who is the embodiment of homophobia and I don't get what the point of telling his story is.
James Franco stars as Michael Glatze, the editor of XY magazine, a gay magazine based in San Francisco. Yet, he also did speaking engagements for LGBT youth around the country. After a health scare that ultimately was negligible, he became more and more religious until he wrote a blog in 2006 about how he was not identifying as gay any more, which itself isn't a bad thing, but in 2008 he became a pastor at a church in Wyoming where he says homosexuality is abnormal, a choice or ultimately a problem. This film depicts the ten-year journey where Glatze changed, going from openly gay writer to anti-gay pastor.
On its surface, it's an interesting and incredible story. If the goal is to tell incredible stories, then this film's purpose is pretty baseline. I can't help but wonder what the takeaway is. I suppose that Kelly believes Glatze is a tragic figure, but traditionally tragic figures like in Shakespeare's plays find defeat, demise or death in the end. It's arguable that that's what happens to Glatze here. He isn't defeated. He's barely even challenged. The final scene would seem to suggest that Glatze isn't happy, that he is defeated, but the look on Franco's face perhaps isn't enough to sell that unhappiness.
People who agree that homosexuality is a choice or a sin that should be eliminated can find Franco's performance as a heroic one. People who like Glatze's story can use this film as a weapon against gay people, especially since Glatze is still alive and propagating this idea that homosexuality is a choice and as he says a "false identity." Kelly portrays the other characters very well but they don't challenge him enough. Kelly ultimately does little to disarm Glatze's propagation of homophobia.
Zachary Quinto (Star Trek and Snowden) co-stars as Bennett, the long-time boyfriend of Michael Glatze. He's the closest thing to challenge Michael. His character is the one whom we can sympathetically hold. Yet, his character is as easily dismissed as anything else. It would have been better if the movie were told from the point-of-view of Bennett, almost as the article "My Ex-Gay Friend" by Benoit Denizet-Lewis is. This movie is based on that article, but it doesn't take the article's perspective.
What's really key is the argument from Glatze that homosexuality and Christianity are mutually exclusive. Essentially, Franco's character says this statement, and, for those who accept the statement, this movie doesn't do a lot to combat it. There are plenty of gay Christians who have reconciled the two identities. We don't have any gay Christians in the film, almost as if gay Christians don't exist. Without that opposing view, the film makes it seem like Glatze's argument is the only way.
Charlie Carver (Teen Wolf and Desperate Housewives) plays Tyler, a physics student whom Michael meets at a bar and whom becomes involved with Michael and Bennett in a threesome that apparently goes on for years. Being a student of science, the film misses an opportunity to have more science and logic interjected and argued at Michael.
Emma Roberts (Nerve and Scream 4) also co-stars as Rebekah, the girlfriend whom Michael meets just before he becomes a pastor. She falls for him without realizing his gay past. When she does find out, the movie again misses an opportunity to have Michael's character challenged. She doesn't ask him questions. She immediately is on his side with no real inspection or interrogation. Sex between them is bypassed.
Kelly gives short-shrift to a great supporting cast. Like the Wachowskis in Sense8, Kelly has the actress Darryl Hannah (Splash and Wall Street) in his story but doesn't make much use of her. She's only in one scene and that's it. Avan Jogia who plays Nico, the Buddhist who catches Michael's eye, gives voice to the aforementioned concerns about Michael's argument but his character is also quickly dismissed.
Kelly runs through Glatze's life in a way that feels episodic. The narrative is never clear or feels like it builds to much of anything. The character of Michael just skates through everything. By the end, I was more intrigued by minor characters like Bennett's new boyfriend, Anthony, played by Juan Castano.