As an actor, James Franco often delivers performances that are packed in quotation marks, as though he’s an actor playing the role of an actor playing his role. In I AM MICHAEL, however, he does serious, substantive work as Michael Glatze, a real-life one-time gay activist who became not just a fundamentalist Christian pastor, but a crusader against homosexuality married to a woman.
The film, directed by first-timer Justin Kelly and written by Kelley and Stacey Miller, retraces that roughly decade-long journey. The filmmakers’ own sympathies are never in doubt, but the script makes a sincere attempt to understand Glatze. It presents him as a victim of the fear fostered by a religion that warns believers to expect the everlasting fires of hell, separated forever from everyone they love, if they don’t practice heterosexuality, a terror of damnation that was strengthened in Glatze’s case by a health scare and the early deaths of his parents. (The director reported at the Sundance premiere that the real Glatze, who wasn’t involved in the production, came to the festival to see the film last week and was supportive.)
Glatze’s about-face about his own sexuality (before his religious conversion, he wasn’t just gay but part of a longstanding all-male menage a trois) could easily be the subject of caricature, and I Am Michael doesn’t pretend to believe his purported contentment with the girl he meets in Bible School (Emma Roberts), but Franco takes him on his own terms. Glatze’s beliefs are contradictory and ultimately hurtful to those he professed to love, yet he’s always guided by what appears to be a genuine desire to help and counsel others, especially young people. There’s nothing cynical about it, and there’s a touching quality to Glatze’s eternal quest for a belief system (he also delves into Buddhism, among other possibilities) that can satisfy his needs.
Kelly gets a lot of mileage out of a limited budget, drawing fine performances not just from Franco, but from Zachary Quinto as the true love of Michael’s life, Charlie Carver and Avan Joglia as other men who figure into his struggles, and Roberts, who like Franco has to walk a fine line in her performance. There’s a notably effective music score by Tim Kvasnosky and Jake Shears, as well as good use of preexisting songs.
I Am Michael has lapses. Considering how front and center family is to Michael’s issues, it’s a surprise late in the game to discover that he has a sister, and there are moments where one can feel Kelly and Miller’s editorial finger on the scales of Michael’s story. For the most part, though, this is a reasonble telling of a story that seems anything but reasoned, one that has relevance beyond the sexual subject matter for anyone who’s known a person who’s changed religious or political views later in life. Fiction has a way of treating character arcs as a straight line, but one of the ways that life can be stranger is that very unexpected U-turns can exist.