Justin Kelly’s “I Am Michael” attempts to understand change: why people change, how it happens, if it is really possible. As to the last question, the film doesn’t quite lay down a definitive yes or no answer — just that people make the choices that they do, and have to continue down whatever path that presents. James Franco stars as Michael Glatze, a former gay activist and magazine editor, who in 2007, announced that he was giving up the gay lifestyle and turning to Christ. What “I Am Michael” attempts to do is take a shocking headline and expand it into a story that explains or explores the nature of a transition like this, without judging or taking sides. But, with the unwillingness to really make a statement on either side of the issue, “I Am Michael” ultimately ends up saying not much at all.
Franco has played roles akin to this before, particularly the beginning portion in San Francisco harkens back to his performance in “Milk” as a gay activist. He’s completely absorbed into this role, and manages to disappear, for the most part, in ways that he hasn’t recently. This performance proves that when he’s on, he’s great. The parts of the film that are most successful are when Michael is grappling with his own belief system, haunted by the deaths of his parents, fearful of his own mortality. Franco plays Michael as a man who is both susceptible and searching for something, but for what he doesn’t know. All he wants is to be with his parents, so if they’re in heaven, and there’s only one way to get there, well…
Zachary Quinto plays Bennett, Michael’s longtime partner. It’s nice to see Quinto in a role such as this; he’s warm and exudes kindness and rationality as the devoted and long-suffering boyfriend. Charlie Carver is also surprisingly great as Tyler, who makes their partnership a trio after Michael picks him up in a club. As a physics student, and gay man, he’s appropriately skeptical when Michael starts to explore spirituality, particularly Christianity and reading the Bible. Avan Jogia, who also appeared in “Ten Thousand Saints” at the festival, has a small but memorable role as a sexy Buddhist who tests and tempts Michael during his period of renouncing his homosexuality.
The struggles with anxiety and the discovery of religion as a source of comfort are the most compelling parts of the film. But once Michael renounces his sexuality, the film narratively meanders. When he goes to Bible school and meets Rebekah (Emma Roberts in her best Christian Stepford drag), the film loses all momentum from there. He’s made his choice and he’s sticking to it. As the film doesn’t take a particular point-of-view on the matter, it makes for a fairly anti-climactic finale.
There are also some storytelling tics that are unnecessary and slightly irritating, such as the overuse of title cards with dates. We don’t need to be told that it’s San Francisco, because there’s an establishing shot that shows that it is, and the year is pretty irrelevant, unless one is overly concerned with fact checking the dates for Glatze’s progression. Speaking of the protagonist, one has to wonder what he might feel being the subject of such a biopic. The screenplay is based off of a New York Times article titled “My Ex-Gay Friend” by Benoit Denizet-Lewis, adapted by director Justin Kelly and Stacey Miller. The article is written from an outside perspective, and thus the film is, too. It’s really trying to get inside the mind of this man, but how could it without his input? It’s a sensitively told tale that never seeks to condemn Glatze, but rather understand him. Ultimately, it posits that he renounced his sexual orientation because he misses his mom and dad and had a health scare. Surely it is far more complicated than that.
While the performances are compelling, particularly Franco’s, and the ideas batted around are worth grappling with, much of the storytelling is bogged down by extra details and exposition, and hampered by its unwillingness to take a position on the topic. An interesting story, but unfortunately, rather uninterestingly told. [C+]