Complications of faith & sexuality
by Brian Bromberger
Counselor: "Gay doesn't exist. It's a false identity." Teen: "This isn't my choice. Why would I choose this?" Counselor: "If you're a moral person, you choose heterosexuality in order to be with God." These are the chilling first words of the new DVD I Am Michael (PassionRiver Films), showing the transformation of Michael Glatze from gay activist to Christian pastor who renounces his homosexual identity. Based on "My Ex-Gay Friend" in The New York Times Magazine, a true story by Glatze's former colleague Benoit Denizet-Lewis, I Am Michael controversially launched Frameline in 2015, drawing skepticism about its suitability as opening-night feature. With its DVD release, audiences can evaluate the feature on its own merits.
After its present-day revelation, I Am Michael flashes back to 1998 San Francisco, where Glatze (James Franco) is the ebullient managing editor of the gay male youth-oriented magazine and social network XY, reaching out to confused young men in the closet with positive gay role models. He is conversant in queer theory, believing gay and straight are social constructs. He is in a happy long-term relationship with architect boyfriend Bennett (Zachary Quinto). The couple moves to Halifax, Nova Scotia when Bennett gets a job offer. They meet college physics student Tyler (Charlie Carver) and evolve into a threesome. Glatze starts a new magazine, YGA (Young Gay America ), catering to queer and questioning youth. Bored by the quiet environment, he convinces Tyler and Bennett to accompany him on a cross-country tour to make a documentary, Jim in Bold, about the struggles of LGBT youth.
Here he encounters gay Christian youth trying to integrate their sexuality and spirituality, which begins a long crisis of faith for Michael. This is complicated by his guilt over not being present at the death of his mother due to cancer when he was 19. He has also not recovered from his father dying of a hereditary heart condition. Studying the Bible, he starts to see his homosexuality as incompatible with his salvation. He separates from a disbelieving Bennett and Tyler, announcing on his blog that he is a Christian heterosexual with a homosexual problem, and that homosexuality leads to damnation.
Crucified by a betrayed gay community and lauded by the religious right, Glatze retreats to a Buddhist meditation center after meeting a young gay Buddhist, Nico (Avan Jogia), who he feels is tempting him. Feeling delivered, he studies for the ministry at a Bible school in Wyoming. He meets a young woman, Rebekah (Emma Roberts), who can accept his past. They are engaged, though not much ardor is evident. He opens his own church as he prepares to wed Rebekah, making a final, heartbreaking phone call to Bennett, telling him he will pray for him.
In his debut feature, writer-director Justin Kelly, a protege of executive producer Gus Van Sant, paints Glatze as neither villain nor hero. This gives the film a detached feel, allowing viewers to make up their mind about him, yet keeping us at arm's length. The film focuses on Michael's inner anguish revealed through voiceovers, so we are told what happens rather than showed. There are few confrontations with other characters. The movie can never decide if this is a genuine religious conversion or an unstable man coming apart at the seams.
With public curiosity about his own sexuality, Franco is perhaps the ideal actor to portray Glatze. He manages to engender compassion for an often-unlikable character. He is matched by Quinto, who, in his few scenes, conveys sadness, gentleness, wit, and levelheadedness. We never doubt that this couple loved each other, and that Michael will always have unresolved feelings toward men. The film raises questions about the destructive role of labels, and there are ways to reconcile being gay and Christian. Yet I Am Michael sidesteps these issues, producing a bland film that will divide viewers, an inevitable result of such a contentious figure.