Now that we’ve installed in the White House a president who shamelessly stoked the fires of intolerance and hate in his campaign for office, this might seem like the wrong time for the release of a film like I Am Michael, a docudrama chronicling the story of Michael Glatze, an out and proud gay man who eventually renounced his homosexuality and became a Christian pastor. To his credit, co-writer/director Justin Kelly is not interested in either celebrating Glatze or demonizing him. Instead, Kelly simply finds him an object of fascination, one worthy of psychological scrutiny and, to a point, understanding. Thus, few attempts are made to explain his behavior. Only the evocative electronic score by Jake Shears and Tim Kvasnovsky come anywhere close to elucidating what Glatze himself may feel as he wrestles with the intersection of his newfound faith and his sexuality.
Lest that imply a chilly and detached viewing experience, thankfully I Am Michael—executive produced by Gus Van Sant—boasts James Franco in one of his better (read: less catatonic) dramatic turns. But then, perhaps his intensity and commitment here shouldn’t be a surprise, considering his long-running interest in homosexuality. This isn’t just evident in the rumors that have swirled over the years (many of them addressed in this recent Rolling Stone profile on the actor), but also in many of his on-screen efforts. Though he has helped turned homoeroticism into a joke with mainstream comedies like Pineapple Express, This is the End and The Interview, some of his work as a director—like Interior. Leather Bar., his and Travis Mathews’ essay-film riff on William Friedkin’s notorious 1980 film Cruising—have shown a more sincere desire to explore gay culture. Franco’s performance as Michael Glatze thus could be seen as a natural extension of his artistic concerns as an actor and director, and he delivers a performance that, by sheer dint of his sensitivity and charisma, bridges gaps in the character’s complex psychology that Kelly purposefully leaves open.
The only consistent thread that comes across in Glatze’s behavior is his search for his authentic self, a quest for identity that is bound with his idealistic vision of a society in which people are seen as individuals rather than boxed into labels like “gay,” “straight,” or “Christian.” The pursuit is born of a paradoxical mix of keening intellectualism and raw intuition. Glatze was obsessed with, among other subjects, queer theory as an undergraduate at Dartmouth, and I Am Michael lays out the path through which such theorizing led him to embrace Christianity and cast off his homosexuality, declaring it an unnatural state in the eyes of God while not going so far as to condemn gays for practicing it. And yet, Glatze’s conversion was purely emotional in nature. Though an interview with an openly gay yet religious college student, along with lingering trauma over his mother’s death, informed his eventual decision, the main catalyst was a health scare Glatze experienced via panic attacks he initially interpreted as his father’s hereditary heart condition flaring up in him. He took the relief he found upon receiving a benign diagnosis as a sign from above that Christianity was his true destiny.
Kelly chronicles this all this with the clear-headedness of a detective procedural—a sense of detachment that makes the film even more unsettling. Though we may empathize with Glatze’s desire to find his authentic self, that doesn’t excuse his judgmental rhetoric and the pain it causes others. Is it possible that religion is merely another box for him to inhabit temporarily until he feels restless again? It’s telling that the film’s final shot is of Glatze’s face, the soundtrack crescendoing with the same accelerating heartbeat that characterized his panic attacks earlier. In I Am Michael, it’s a tribute to Kelly and Franco’s compassion that this moment leaves us genuinely worried about Glatze’s future even as we acknowledge it as sadly, and perhaps somewhat tragically, inevitable.
Director: Justin Kelly
Writer: Justin Kelly and Stacy Miller
Starring: James Franco, Zachary Quinto, Emma Roberts, Charlie Carver, Avan Jogia, Daryl Hannah
Release Date: Jan. 27, 2017
Kenji Fujishima is a freelance film critic, contributing to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist, and the Village Voice in addition to Paste. He is also Deputy Editor of Movie Mezzanine and former editor-in-chief of In Review Online. When he’s not watching movies and writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.