Review: 'I Am Michael' Starring James Franco, Zachary Quinto, And Emma Roberts

NOTE: This is a reprint of my review from the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. I Am Michael opens January 27th. 

If it's Sundance, then James Franco probably has two or three movies there and this year is no different. When not indulging in stoner comedies with his pals, Franco's drive as an indie filmmaker and actor has seen him exploring themes of sexual identity, especially when it pertains to homosexuality. Franco's latest film, I Am Michael, is easily the most thought-provoking work he has done in this milieu yet as it deals with the true story of a formerly gay man who renounce his homosexuality.

This isn't just any ordinary man, though, as Franco plays rabble-rousing gay activist Michael Glatze, former editor of popular gay magazine 'XY'. When we first meet him it's much later on during his time as a Christian pastor, warning a young man not to give in to his homosexual urges. As a mocking counterpoint, of which the film has many, we are jumped back ten years to 1998 San Francisco when Michael was a very different man. Then he was energetic, young, and very gay; living in domestic bliss with his architect boyfriend Bennett (Zachary Quinto) and running 'XY' as the editor and lead voice. A move to Halifax puts a strain on their relationship, but it is soon bolstered by the presence of Tyler (Charlie Carver), a young college student who shares their bed. Michael continues to fight for gay causes and even embarks on a road trip to mount a documentary on gay youth. After once encouraging homosexuals to be loud and proud about who they are, he begins to adopt the notion that labels of any kind are misguided. It's a fair assessment to make, but Michael soon begins to question everything he thought he knew. Despite the evil acts committed by Christians against gays, such as the Matthew Shepard murder, is it fair to label all Christians as "evil"?

When a series of health problems arise, Michael finds himself turning towards God in a way he never has before. He's consumed with the desire to be reunited with his late mother and to be seen favorably in the eyes of the Lord, and this change naturally has a dramatic effect on Bennett, as well, who openly wonders where the Michael he knew has gone. But Michael insists that he's still only trying to break through stereotypes and go beyond the labels, even as his increased use of extreme fundamentalist dogma says otherwise. It isn't long before Michael has pulled away from the life he knew completely, renouncing his homosexuality and proclaiming that he is and always has been a heterosexual with "homosexual problem".

For writer/director Justin Kelly, Michael's evolution, if one can call it that, is clearly a confused one filled with contradictions. The film begins mostly in biographical fashion, free of judgment as Michael lives his life as a gay rights activist. Kelly is quick to show how truly happy Michael was during this time as a contrast to the somber, conflicted man he appears to be later on after his conversion. But Kelly also manages to consider Michael on an even level for the most part, taking great pains not to ridicule his choices no matter how ridiculous some of them may seem. His transformation is depicted honestly, if curiously, as an alienated man simply trying to find some sense of belonging. All of the babble he piles on about reaching Heaven and earning God's favor comes off as slightly disingenuous, and it's during those brief, somber moments when he reaches out (usually by phone) to Bennett that he's truly himself again. When Michael joins a Bible school and forges a romantic heterosexual relationship with a young classmate (Emma Roberts), it's perhaps the surest step in the new direction he is going. If the screenplay is perhaps a bit simplistic and laborious at times, it's kind of understandable because Michael is a constant work-in-progress. To completely understand him is impossible given that he barely seems to understand himself.  Franco is in charge of practically every scene and it's one of the most textured performances he's ever given considering the world of difference between the vibrant young Michael and the mysterious, closed-off individual he becomes later on.

I Am Michael isn't a feel-good story by any means. It's not the story of a man who came to discover his true place in the world. Instead it's a sad but fascinating look at a man who was unable to see that the one thing he wanted most in the world, acceptance, was already in his grasp and he threw it all away.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5