There are two ways of seeing “I Am Michael,” the provocative first feature from director Justin Kelly: It’s either a tragic portrait of former gay rights activist Michael Glatze, who renounced his homosexuality in 2007 and eventually denounced it as a sin, or it’s a stirring look at a conflicted man coping with his crisis of faith. That tantalizing open-ended perspective is key to the movie’s subtle effect. Anchored by a remarkably convincing performance by James Franco in the lead role, “I Am Michael” manages to explore Glatze’s story without condemning him, even as it foregrounds the troubling nature of his path.
After a grave opening sequence set in 2008, in which a buttoned-up Glatze delivers a stern rebuke to the desires of a young gay man, “I Am Michael” flashes back a decade to find him at a very different stage: He’s living comfortably with his boyfriend (Zachary Quinto) in San Francisco, where Glatze was an editor at the influential gay lifestyle magazine XY. Spouting queer theory during energetic staff meetings, he ultimately launches on a road trip to create a documentary designed to inspire gay youth (which is cleverly threaded into scripted scenes).
But after a series of anxiety attacks, he moves toward a spiritual path that leads him toward finding solace in the Bible, and eventually reaches the conclusion that he’s “a heterosexual person with a homosexual problem.” The movie’s subdued tone foregrounds the ambiguities of Glatze’s motives. It’s clear that every step of the way, he’s trapped by an ever-shifting set of conflicting thoughts, even as he attempts to assert his religious dogma on an public stage.
While Quinto provides a devastating counterpoint to Glatze’s changing agenda as the couple’s relationship gradually falls apart, Franco essentially runs the show. The grim, focused gaze he adopts during the movie’s later scenes strikes an unsettling contrast with the ebullient young man seen in the first act, but Kelly makes this transition credible by sticking with Glatze in every scene. His face becomes the movie’s chief mystery even as various clues to his evolving mentality crop up along the way. As he alludes to his conservative upbringing in Olympia, Washington, Glatze’s insecurities mesh with a consist activist sensibility, suggesting that his own constant desire for personal catharsis drives his mission more than the murky ideology he eventually assembles.
Nevertheless, there’s no question that “I Am Michael” — which counts Gus Van Sant among its executive producers — portrays the character’s ultimate decisions as disingenuous, while attempting to get at the essence of his choices from his own perspective. As we see the man attempt a heterosexual lifestyle and cope with the backlash to his punditry, the movie adopts an eerie tone that implies his constant sense of alienation. With its minimalist score and nuanced dialogue, it dances around any possibility of manipulating the emotions in play. The narrative is practically journalistic in its quest to chronicle Glatze’s story; Kelly digs for answers but never forces any single takeaway.
But that doesn’t mean that “I Am Michael” is deaf to the somber developments in play. The dissolution of his long-term relationship strikes a distinctly melancholic note, while the backlash that Glatze faces from both the gay community and the various churches that reject his individualistic approach to asserting his identity make it possible to identify with his own consistent frustrations. Notably, the movie doesn’t conclude with Glatze’s dramatic lifestyle change, instead continuing to follow him through a series of encounters with various belief system while cultivating his own. The result is a credible arc that only stumbles by avoiding the bigger picture — namely, that the notion of “ex-gay therapy” isn’t exclusively restricted to Michael’s head. In its quest for objectivity, the movie sometimes registers as too simplistic for its own good.
But that’s a minor quibble given the intimate textures of “I Am Michael” that root its developments in Glatze’s subjectivity. By the time he finds his future fiancé (Emma Roberts), there’s no doubting Glatze’s commitment to his religious path or the contradictory feelings that make each step harder for him. The movie lingers in Glatze’s paradoxical state with a distinctly contemporary quality that embodies the lingering resistance to gay progress in modern America. By that token, “I Am Michael” turns its subject into a tantalizing metaphor for the conflicting belief systems. For anyone understandably troubled by Glatze’s story, the movie provides ample fuel for exploring his mentality without reducing it to a punchline. In the telling final shot, “I Am Michael” leaves us with the disturbing suggestion that no matter Glatze’s true feelings, he’s trapped by the courage of his convictions.
“I Am Michael” premiered this weekend at the Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.