Dir: Justin Kelly. US. 2014. 100mins
Based on a true story, the strange journey of Michael Glatze from gay activism to evangelical Christianity is a drama that raises more questions than it answers. James Franco in the lead can rally an audience for almost any subject, which means that the public for I Am Michael won’t be limited to the LGBT market. Before any release, the film’s improbable story is likely to be all over television in North America, which could prepare the drama for a modest theatrical run. Franco fans should make this one strong on VOD, but no less perplexing.
The film plays with ambiguity, as it’s not clear whether this is a story of a religious conversion or a case of a young man coming apart.
The Michael Glatze story told here, exec-produced by Gus Van Sant, comes from an article written by co-producer Benoit Denizet-Lewis, a friend of the activist publisher who reached out to gay youth in the late 1990’s with XY magazine.
We meet Glatze in San Francisco in the 1990’s, as he has made a name for himself as a proponent of Queer Theory and a publisher of a widely-read magazine. He and his architect boyfriend, Bennet (Zachary Quinto), decamp for Bennet’s hometown of Halifax with a college kid (Charlie Carver) who’s made their life a threesome. A restless Glatze begins to develop chest pains and fears he’s suffering front the heart ailment that killed his father.
Glatze’s health panic triggers a spiritual crisis, which sets deeper changes into motion. Franco plays him as a young man, desperate not to be identified as gay, whose certainty has turned to anguish. He turns to other men, to meditation and to the Bible, where he finds his new vocation. He believes that his God-ordained decision will help him get to heaven, where he hopes to reunite with his parents.
The film plays with ambiguity, as it’s not clear whether this is a story of a religious conversion or a case of a young man coming apart. Glatze, the practitioner of outreach to gay youth struggling over their decision to come out. becomes a passionate proselytizer for evangelical Christianity, to the point where his ardor is too much for a Bible college in Wyoming, which ousts him. Although he pulls the plug on his gay lovers and friends, he’s clearly still attracted to men. Emma Roberts, his post-conversion love interest, generates as much heat here as a wet Bible.
And let’s not discount the chance that Franco, who can flaunt an amorphous sexuality, could be toying with the audience, although Justin Kelly’s earnest script (co-written with Stacey Miller) doesn’t make room for irony.
Kelly’s tracking of Michael’s spiritual journey has some odd visual quirks. At pivotal moments in Franco’ spiritual deliberations, the camera observes events from above. Is God observing things from on high, as Michael implies when he tries to explain his turn to religion? Or is the shot a stylistic device, as the director tries to punctuate a long march from one extreme to another?
Kelly’s film is a competent feature debut – elegantly filmed and paced to keep viewers with Franco on an improbable ride. Yet the script views Glatze from a distance, never really entering his head to penetrate beyond the character’s own apologia for a bizarre life change.
We get a sense of Kelly’s and Franco’s perspective on the story when Tori Amos’s Crucify plays over the end credits. The film enters some new ground when it tries to examine overlaps of religion and gay culture. Yet its failure to make much sense of Glatze’s transformation points to the gulf between those two extremes, which an actor of Franco’s talent still doesn’t bridge.
Production companies, backers: Rabbit Bandini Productions, Patriot Pictures LLC, That’s Hollywood Pictures
International sales: The Exchange firstname.lastname@example.org
Producers: James Franco, Vince Jolivette, Scott Reed, Ron Singer, Michael Mendelsohn
Executive producer: Gus Van Sant
Co-producers: Benoit Denizet-Lewis, Daniel Katzman, Mike Dusi, Joel Michaely
Screenplay: Justin Kelly, Stacey Miller
Cinematography: Christopher Blauvelt
Editor: Aaron I. Butler
Production designer: Michael Barton
Music: Jason Sellards, Tim Kvasnosky
Main cast: James Franco, Zachary Quinto, Emma Roberts, Charlie Carver