Who are you? This is a question that we all, on some level, must face as we figure out our place in the world. For Michael Glatze the answer was simple - he was a gay writer in San Francisco in the late 90s, reaching out to young kids and helping them be comfortable with their sexuality. But a brush with illness makes him begin to question everything about his life, including his relationship with God, and Glatze goes just as hard in the opposite direction as he had as a gay advocate, becoming a Christian and proclaiming himself an ‘ex-gay.’
What makes someone do such an abrupt about face? Justin Kelly’s I Am Michael approaches the question but never answers it - and maybe that’s for the best. It shows us the journey of this strange, tortured man and leaves us to make our own conclusions, and to look for Glatze’s own confusions in our lives.
James Franco is Glatze; the actor, who might be appearing in too many things (he was in three films at Sundance and one at Slamdance) reminds us why he’s an in-demand star in I Am Michael. Simply put, he can act, and he’s charismatic in a way that helps us get inside Glatze even as he betrays not just his ideals but the people around him. Zachary Quinto is opposite Franco as his boyfriend of a decade, Glatze’s true love (and author of the article on which this movie is based), but a man that the unmoored seeker can no longer be with as he gives his life over to God. Quinto is even better than Franco, giving the character of Bennett a complicated mixture of dignity and pain. He can’t understand what Glatze is doing any more than we can.
The first half of I Am Michael is shaky - it’s a lot of gay rights 101 stuff, including explanations of the Matthew Shepard case. Everybody runs around explaining their position on gay rights and culture, and the film looks to be just another standard biopic. But once Glatze has his illness and begins looking for answers in the Bible Kelly darkens and slows the movie, turning it into an identity horror film. As Glatze goes off on his own, shedding his own life and never fitting into his new one, Kelly ramps up the anxiety.
I do wish that the film had found a better way to illustrate Glatze’s personal crisis cinematically. It ends up having him running through a park looking up at trees, and it repeats imagery attached to his dead mother, but such a complex internal conflict deserves more. This is the film’s central mystery, and Kelly is willing to stand outside of it rather than truly dive into it in the moment.
I Am Michael refuses to take sides (although it’s pretty easy to figure out that everybody involved thinks Glatze has issues and that you can’t be ‘ex-gay’), and as a result it becomes more than a ‘gay movie.’ It’s a movie about identity politics in general, about how we define ourselves and the way that losing these definitions can send us careening through life. This is Kelly’s first feature and you can almost see him finding his way as it goes; I’m definitely interested in seeing what he does next.