Michael Glatze (James Franco) is a gay man who really wants to help people. Initially working for XY Magazine before increasingly becoming an activist and launching YGA (Young Gay Americans), he becomes a prominent figure advancing the gay cause. However, Michael still feels something is missing. That’s despite having a loving boyfriend, Bennett (Zachary Quinto), and the sometime addition of a third into the relationship, Tyler (Charlie Carver).
After a health scare where he’s convinced he has the disease that caused his father to drop down dead, Michael increasingly turns to religion. What initially seems like an attempt to find meaning and reassurance that death is not the end, takes an unexpected turn when Michael leaves Bennett and publicly announces that he no longer identifies as gay. This causes a bit of a sensation, but Michael is determined he must live his own ‘truth’. That includes his new belief that homosexuality leads people away from being their ‘true selves’, which is the only way to find God. Eventually that takes him into a relationship with a woman.
I Am Michael first debuted at festivals over two years ago, so I’m not entirely sure why it’s taken it so long to reach us. Since it first screened, James Franco and Justin Kelly have made and released another movie together, King Cobra, so it really has been a long wait. One of the reasons is probably the rather muted critical reception the movie got, and unfortunately, while not a terrible movie it does feel like it’s slightly dropped the ball.
The problem is mainly that the movie wants to be really fair. That doesn’t sound like it should be a problem, but I Am Michael takes it a little far. It would have been easy to make a movie excoriating Michael Glatze and his move from pro-gay advocate to ex-gay poster boy (even if he has slightly mellowed his stance since he first ‘turned’). I Am Michael doesn’t want to do that, instead trying to be neutral about it and attempting to understand the journey Glatze went on from his point of view.
Ultimately though it’s so neutral and that it often feels like it’s not properly engaging with the key issues. For large chunks of the movie, it’s mainly showing you some things that happened rather than helping you to understand them. As with quite a few other films that have been keen to be impartial about a potentially controversial story, I Am Michael doesn’t seem to realise that engaging with an issue isn’t the same as advocating for it.
Although it does hint towards some interesting things – whether the ‘gay lifestyle’ leaves people spiritually empty, where the edge is between gay as an orientation and as a social construct, and whether you can be both gay and truly Christian – it doesn’t get all that far with them. Similarly, it feels like it’s missed out various steps in how Michael got from gay advocate to completely turning on his former life and identity. While he has a health scare and becomes increasingly concerned about what happens after death, the script sidesteps the other issues involved, instead using long shots of James Franco looking serious and slightly troubled to make us assume something important – but unspoken – is going on in his head.
There are also some things that it doesn’t really address but which seem vital to the truth of the story. For example, Michael could have just ‘gone straight’ quietly, but instead he decides he needs to tell the world, and then engage in increasingly inflammatory rhetoric. However, the movie doesn’t really look at this need to do things in public.
Similarly, various characters talk about how God is telling them to do something, but the movie doesn’t address what this means – some have even taken it as the movie suggesting Michael has literally gone mad when he suggests he knows what God is thinking and wants for him. Of course it’s not saying that, but you can see why someone who hasn’t been exposed to that type of religion might think that’s what the film is saying. I Am Michael also slightly avoids going too deep into the underlying psychology of a man who went from one extreme to the other. There is some logic in that, as it could have seemed like it was offering easy answers and preventing people from thinking that the issues Michael is dealing with might relate to them, but it still feels like it’s slightly missing something.
It’s largely in the early stages of the movie that these problems are acute, as once Michael is on his ex-gay journey, it becomes a more intriguing and interesting film. Here it does engage with whether such a drastic change is possible (while still being neutral about it), and also the edge where sexuality and religion mix. For a time Michael is a pretty confused, getting involved in Mormonism, finding a rather right-wing Christianity, but then still ending up on a Buddhist retreat with a semi-boyfriend he both embraces and rejects simultaneously, while doing some mental gymnastics so that he can tell himself he’s doing the right thing. This section is more intriguing and at times more disturbing, especially when Michael starts flirting with a relationship with Rebekah (Emma Roberts), a young woman whose sweetness and belief in change want to see past Michael’s past, but which leaves the viewer wondering whether she’s asking for trouble.
Franco is very good in the movie, giving his all to try and breathe life into a complex character and story. However, he can’t paper over the cracks in the way the tale is told. The likes of Zachary Quinto and Charlie Carver also do their best, but ultimately feel like ciphers more than people. It is all a bit of a shame, as it’s a potentially fascinating story and the movie constantly hints at something genuinely interesting and involving, and there are sections where it shows what it might have been. However, in its desperation to stay neutral, it ends up hamstringing itself. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of impartiality, but here it goes a little too far. It is still worth a watch, but it could have been more.
Overall Verdict: There are plenty of intriguing moments in I Am Michael, and there’s no doubt that the true story is interesting, but by being so keen not to condemn Michael and try to see things from his point of view, it ultimately fails to make the viewer truly understand his journey or the issues involved.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac