Sundance Film Review: ‘I Am Michael’

25 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘I Am Michael': Sundance Review.

An unusually nuanced James Franco carries this complex portrait of a man who came out and fought to encourage other LGBT youth before converting to conservative Christianity.Queer-curious actor James Franco has played both gay and straight roles in the past, and he gets to do both almost simultaneously in I Am Michael, the workmanlike story of Michael Glatze, a former gay magazine editor in a relationship who, after a health scare, became a Christian pastor with a girlfriend. This feature debut from writer-director Justin Kelly, executive produced by Gus Van Sant, has an intriguing, real-life premise and a marketable cast that also includes Zachary Quinto and Emma Roberts. While admirable in its seeming impartiality, Justin Kelly’s hot-potato directorial debut won’t be seen by many beyond the arthouse and festival circuit, but it will nevertheless rile viewers and provoke discussion on all sides, simply because it cuts to the heart of the self-doubt, fear and prejudice associated with modern homosexuality.

Thankfully, the screenplay doesn’t portray the story in simple terms of good or evil, but that doesn’t mean that there’s quite enough nuance or insight to constantly elevate the material above the level of a well-made-but-TV-ready biopic. Coming out is a complicated process, and it probably would have made sense to start “I Am Michael” there — not at the moment Michael realized he was gay, but rather with his personal coming-out story, which nearly all gay men of a certain generation tell and retell. The film’s qualities aside, its subject will also make it problematic to market — what’s the target audience for a story moving between two almost mutually exclusive communities? — though a brave boutique distributor might take a chance on this. It’s a rite of passage to which heterosexuals on’t really relate, since at no point in their lives are the straight men or women expected to declare their persuasion as being so central to their identity that they can no longer live in secret.

Michael is Michael Glatze, who moves to San Francisco with his partner, Bennett (Zachary Quinto) and lands a job at XY magazine, a seminal title for young gay men who came of age in the late 1990s. This, of course, is what Franco’s character goes through in the film, though audiences will surely have their own set of complex reactions to his situation, particularly those who see Glatze’s choice not only as a betrayal of his true self, but an attack on all who have found peace with their homosexuality.

But the ebullient and outspoken Michael is bored in Nova Scotia, and even the addition of a hot young thing, Tyler (Teen Wolf’s Charlie Carver, who looks like Russell Tovey’s younger brother), to their relationship doesn’t seem to offer the fulfillment that Michael is craving. He launches a new gay magazine and is involved in making a documentary, Jim in Bold, about the experiences of young gay people in the U.S., many of them victims in one way or another of their churches or strictly religious families (an actual excerpt of Jim in Bold is seamlessly blended into footage of Franco, Quinto and Carver as they shoot the project).

But instead of providing Mike with an outlet for his energy and creativity, he’s touched most by an encounter with a young gay student (Jacob Loeb, Franco’s co-star in The Sound and the Fury) who’s openly gay and insists on holding on to his Christian beliefs. The world is full of stories of young people who have gone through anti-gay conversion (or “reparative”) therapy, though Glatze’s case is unique in that he had been a vocal activist for gay teens, serving as managing editor of XY as a means of reaching other confused young men who might otherwise be depressed or suicidal without positive gay imagery and role models.

He eventually decides that he no longer wants to be gay and ends up at a Bible college in Wyoming where he meets and marries a fellow student (Emma Roberts). Whereas many kids have forced their same-sex temptations back into the closet for fear of being damned to hell, Kelly’s screenplay (co-written with Stacey Miller) suggests that Michael was driven by a profound desire to reach heaven. Without reducing Michael’s process to a single “eureka” moment, the matter-of-factly constructed script suggests that the decision arose in response to a series of prompts. These voiceovers help fill in the blanks a little too easily, and a few more actual conversations with those closest to him would have helped give the film more emotional heft and provided the audience with more opportunities to empathize with the protagonist. At the moments these real-life conversations and arguments do occur, such as when Bennett and Mike discuss the “God issue” of Michael’s magazine; when they fight just before Mike leaves Bennett; or when Tyler comes to say goodbye before he leaves, they provide simple, touching and effective insights into Mike’s inner struggles and the troubles those that love him are having trying to adjust to his new personality.

Franco has the most thankless job here, practically having to do an anti-makeover, transforming from someone outgoing and unapologetically gay to someone afraid of death, who seeks wholesomeness in God and the Scriptures. While slowly withdrawing from gay gatherings and clubs, Michael begins to dwell on having missed his mother’s death, speculating about whether he will be reunited with her in the afterlife. It’s one of the super-busy actor’s more subdued performances, which helps make both the gay and born-again Michael more believable and, despite their enormous differences, of one piece. Daryl Hannah has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo as an employee at a Buddhist retreat where Glatze spends some time in limbo, thinking his model-handsome gay Buddhist friend (Avan Jogia, a soulful presence) is God’s way of testing him.

Suddenly, he found himself studying the Bible with the same intensity, seizing on Matthew 10:39 as a kind of justification to deny that aspect of his life that had previously defined him — which would be one thing, if he didn’t also denounce homosexuality as an invented, “abnormal” identity and begin counseling troubled teens to that effect. Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt keeps most of the interiors penumbral, while outdoor scenes are drenched in natural light, thus mirroring Glatze’s growing interior darkness and search for something outside himself that will make him see the light again. Franco, unusually stoic, doesn’t give Michael much of an inner life and his conversion is shown less by anything the character does and more by his hair colour and style of dress. The film’s extremely heterogeneous score, however, doesn’t enrich the material so much as occasionally take it perilously close to bargain-basement TV. Naturally, we still sense the disbelief from Bennett, Tyler and a handsome Buddhist named Nico (Avan Jogia) whom he uses along the way, though for the most part, the film is single-mindedly focused on Michael’s journey — to the exclusion of other subplots or business that might have made for a richer film.

That evolution can be felt most clearly through the shifting score, from Scissor Sisters lead Jake Shears and pianist Tim Kvasnosky, as it settles from early synth riffs down to more classical-sounding compositions. It feels like it’s hewing too close to both an agenda and the truth of the story instead of exploring the emotional and intellectual truths that lie beneath it. There would be an interesting movie to be made about the interplay between identity, sexuality, religion and self-identity,in the events and intellectual leaps it would take to turn a gay activist into a proselytizer for heterosexuality. On one hand, what Franco does with his private life remains a tiresome and irrelevant distraction from the quality of the work itself, and yet, the seemingly omnipresent actor seems to be orchestrating some sort of massive performance-art project around the very question of his identity, into which questions of sexuality clearly factor.

Here, he gamely commits to the full spectrum the role demands, ranging from casual canoodling with Quinto in the couple’s San Francisco apartment to the hesitant first steps to (re)claiming Michael’s straight identity. As if determined not to offend, yet equally committed not to shy away from sexuality, Kelly includes footage of the initial threesome between Michael, Bennett and Tyler, but shoots it at such a distance that it hardly registers as arousing. Actually, that clinical, kid-gloves approach extends to the entire film, which manages to recreate a late-’90s rave and other period details on its modest budget, but always at arm’s length. Shooting in inexplicably dark widescreen, but seldom taking advantage of that cinematic format’s compositional potential, Kelly’s approach registers as cold and almost TV-movie-ish at times, as if he’s subtracted his own artistic take in order to maintain that semblance of objectivity.

Except for the uneasy last shot and the heart-breaking phone call between Franco and Quinto that precedes it, one might not even realize a gay man had made the film. A Patriot Pictures presentation of a Rabbit Bandini Prods., That’s Hollywood Pictures production. (International sales: The Exchange, Los Angeles.) Produced by James Franco, Vince Jolivette, Michael Mendelsohn, Ron Singer, Scott Reed.

Butler; music, Jason Sellards, Tim Kvasnosky; music supervisor, Debbie Reynolds; production designer, Michael Barton; art director, Lucas Miller; set decorator, Abigail Benavides; costume designer, Brenda Abbandadnolo; sound, Frank Intorcia; supervising sound editor, Scott Kramer; re-recording mixers, Kramer, Stanley Johnston; line producer, Claudine Marrotte; associate producers, Natatie Perrotta, Allegra Cohen, Daniel Katzman; casting, Cynthia Huffman.

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