Michael Glatze – the titular “Michael” of I Am Michael – rocked the LGBT community with both positive influence and negative poison (a life story that he sold for $75K). His pursuit of purity is what drives Justin Kelly’s biographical drama, playing out an age-old war between religion and homosexuality. An old-school journey through acceptance, everlasting scorn and homosexual damnation with extreme responses to holy turmoil, still socially relevant for openly gay individuals in today’s far-more accepting world. Kelly wants to speak to broader audiences, and he accomplishes just that – but with such an extreme example, are the messages received by all open ears?
James Franco stars as gay icon/bastard turncoat Michael Glatze, who we first meet as a San Franciscan trailblazer for queer acceptance. Michael’s passion is fuelled by helping closeted youths embrace their true personalities, and he does so by managing XY Magazine with the support of boyfriend Bennett (Zachary Quinto). His activism helps many boys gain the confidence to come out, and Michael finds purpose in paving the way for future generations. It was a time not long ago – think the late 90s and early 2000s – but still a completely different world as far as gay rights were concerned. Someone had to bring a voice to the voiceless, and Michael stepped forward.
Yet, this was not the end of Michael’s personal journey. After moving to Halifax so Bennett can take a mundane job, Michael finds himself becoming bored and underwhelmed. His research leads to religious interpretations of the “blasphemous” gay lifestyle, which sit uncomfortably. So uncomfortably in fact, that Michael suffers from panic attacks that he mistakes for his father’s rare heart disease.
After being blessed with a clean bill of health, Michael begins to side more and more with God – whose words do not allow for such sin. Being “gay” is selfish, and Michael means to cleanse himself with heterosexuality. The one-time gay icon devotes his life to a lovely lady (Rebekah Fuller, played by Emma Roberts), and comes back out as a straight man who was blinded by temptation. A heterosexual with a homosexual problem, as he states.
So, here is the film’s biggest detractor – Kelly plays both sides well, but maybe a little too well. Glatze’s identity flip-flop couldn’t be of a starker contrast, but I Am Michael is too good at painting both sides. We’re clued into the wavering, uncertain life of a confused, conflicted man, but the message itself is a bit hazy. Early scenes of relationship bliss between Franco and Quinto turn into domestic suffocation, yet after Glatze thinks he finds salvation as a hetero pastor, we end-scene on a panic attack before his first sermon. In this moment, points are dulled and social responsibility becomes blurred. Is this a movie about finding yourself? Or is this merely a biopic about an interesting life that doesn’t know what it wants to say, despite a dagger-sharp topic?
Performances score critical points under Kelly’s microscope, specifically Franco as Michael Glatze. The chemistry between Michael and Bennett is a testament to their devotion, so caught up in the euphoric nature of fighting social injustices. We know the transformation Franco is about to endure – almost with a bi-polar, thrilling twist – but Bennett and Michael navigate the most human of relationships, even when Charlie Carver is introduced as their cub-like plaything (a studly intellectual Tyler).
All together, as a passionate triumvirate, these three actors navigate the waters of being proactive “outcasts” with spirited compassion until Franco sees his character become one with God. There’s no undermining this twist, as I Am Michael‘s second half exposes an insecure, inquisitive performance ripe with hypocrisy and shocking resolve. Kudos to such a tonal handstand, balanced and complicated in the messy existence only a human can live. Indecisive, venomous and constantly at war with questions that cannot be answered. But what does it all mean? Michael struggles, struggles some more, and keeps struggling – all with an infinite discomfort.
So, who is Michael Glatze? Watch I Am Michael to find out. He’s two personas fighting an emotional tug-of-war that pulls in separate directions. One way towards Bennett and Michael’s bleach-blonde gay hero, the other way towards a lovely young Christian girl whose beliefs would smite Michael’s other half. This is a confounding duality worth Justin Kelly’s attention, but such rich contrast is too specific to offer help anywhere else. One man’s journey becomes overly focused on exposition and specific Glatze details, until a grander message becomes lost amidst singular resonance (as lost as Glatze himself).
Performances are stellar (James Franco above all) and the $75K purchase isn’t for naught, but Kelly’s target audience dwindles as scenes pass by. For most viewers in the crowd, this short-sighted docudrama does little more than retell a life with inherent curiosity. It’s informative, yet missing a bigger picture that could have translated Glatze’s experience into something more.
James Franco is a stand-out in I Am Michael, but the film's specific story struggles to relate on a broader scale.