ATLFF15: I Am Michael

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James Franco and homosexuality are not exactly strangers. Sexual identity is a recurring theme in the actor’s work, both in front of and behind the camera. What makes his latest foray into playing gay on screen is not only the story that’s told, but its basis in real life. I Am Michael is a surprisingly evenhanded depiction of gay activist Michael Glatze, who eventually converted to Christianity and renounced his homosexuality. In spite of boasting a story that should be interesting on camera, though, I Am Michael never quite connects as effectively as it could have; its insistence on largely maintaining a neutral tone occasionally renders the film toothless.

The film opens with Michael Glatze in San Francisco, where he lives with partner Bennett (Zachary Quinto). Michael is successfully working as managing editor of XY, a magazine aimed at gay youth, when Bennett accepts a job from his father in Halifax. The two make the move, and Michael has a rough time adjusting to life in Halifax. Eventually, Michael and Bennett’s relationship shifts to include a third partner, Tyler (Charlie Carver). As time goes on, Michael starts to withdraw from the broader gay community, instead becoming more focused on his mother’s death and a curiosity about whether they might reconnect in the afterlife. After Michael suffers from a wave of panic attacks that he interprets as being a more serious medical condition, Michael begins to credit his survival to divine intervention. As he begins to explore his spirituality, Michael becomes increasingly detached from his life with Bennett and Tyler, and ultimately decides to publicly state that he’s no longer gay. Further exploration of Christianity leads Michael to becoming a pastor and settling down with Rebekah (Emma Roberts).

Michael Glatze certainly isn’t the only person to tout becoming an “ex-gay,” but Glatze’s role in that world is more notable because he spent years on the other side, actively encouraging queer youth to come out. While the film puts voices to the disbelief that occurred in real life through Bennett, Tyler, and a sexy Buddhist named Nico (Avan Jogia) who Michael uses, I Am Michael largely focuses on Michael’s journey. What becomes evident as the film progresses is that Michael rarely seems satisfied staying in one place for too long, whether physically or mentally. He’s constantly trying to figure himself out. That’s not enough for Michael, though; he feels the need to bring others to his line of thinking, regardless of the outcome.

It’s easy to think of James Franco as constantly gay-baiting with his actions in recent years, but he acquits himself quite well in the lead. He’s equally capable of showing the physical intimacy between Michael and Bennett in early scenes and a growing sense of coldness as Michael “converts” to heterosexuality.

The film’s final pair of scenes hint at a stronger film; in both, the tone moves away from the neutrality that dominates the film in favor of suggesting there are problems with Michael’s actions. As it stands, I Am Michael offers plenty of fodder for discussion, but it falls shy of being a strong film on its own.

I Am Michael • Rating: Unrated • Runtime: 98 minutesGenre: Drama • Cast: James Franco, Zachary Quinto, Emma Roberts, Charlie Carver, Avan Jogia • Director: Justin Kelly • Writer: Justin Kelly, Stacey Miller
Playing: Friday, March 20, 2015; 7:30 p.m.
Location: The Plaza Theatre, Main Theatre
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