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'I Am Michael' Reminds Us That Identity Struggle Takes on Many Forms

James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael (US 2017)

I Am Michael, while an uneven film, is also an important cinematic work which evokes intelligent discourse and empathy in its exploration of sexual and religious identity issues.

I Am Michael

Director: Justin Kelly
Cast: James Franco, Zachary Quinto, Emma Roberts
Studio: Brainstorm Media
US Release Date: 2017-01-27

Michael Glatze (James Franco) was a former openly homosexual editor of XY Magazine and a nationally renowned gay rights activist in the late '90s and early '00s. Shockingly in 2007, when the gay rights movement was staunched by the Bush Administration, Glatze not only announced over the internet that he had become a Christian "ex-gay" but he also blogged that homosexuality is a fabricated identity which perpetuated a godless existence and guaranteed damnation.

Nearly ten years after Glatze sent shockwaves through the gay rights community, the 2017 theatrical release of I Am Michael, starring James Franco as the titular character, casts a softer light on Glatze. The film proves itself to be a more searching and sympathetic portrayal than afforded in a viral 2011 New York Times article about Glatze entitled "My Ex-Gay Friend", of which some of the film is based. In providing an emotionally well-rounded portrayal of Glatze, particularly in these tumultuous and polarized times, director Justin Kelly has rendered an important and interesting independent film.

It takes a while, however, for I Am Michael to find its emotional core and fully utilize Franco's talents. Much of the film's first half an hour operates on a purely informational level, opting for flat, expository treatment of Glatze's time at XY magazine. Predictably, the opening San Fransisco scenes are captured with light piano music and stock footage of the city's rolling hills and bustling nightlife (including a standard rave party scene full of makeouts and happy go lucky drug use). All plainly signify Glatze's career ascension and a sense of happiness. Also in almost purely essay format, Glatze engages in spirited colloquies about the limitations of sexual identity assignments with his XY colleagues. While Franco does his best to make I Am Michael's lengthy, rather conflict-free existence in San Fransisco appear interesting, the entire ordeal may ultimately prove boring to the audience.

Fortunately, I am Michael proves itself to be an uneven film in the best possible way. Kelly reminds us that, as with the work of all prodigious young directors, one of the most satisfactory aspects of watching their early works is see them find their footing as the story goes on. At just about the time when Glatze's sexual and religious identity confusion submerges him into depression and anxiety disorder in Halifax, Canada -- where Michael moves with Ben (Zachary Quinto) due to Ben's career relocation -- Kelly begins to own his voice.

One of I Am Michael's most successful devices is a barrage of purposeful close-ups on Glatze during his spiritual and sexual confusion in Halifax. Kelly often captures Glatze to the far left or right of the frame, be it at a quaint cottage restaurant, or when standing at a marina where the audience can only see the railing, but not the ocean or a magnificent morning landscape. These are one-sided, claustrophobic views of a city which, in reality, are not only teeming with natural splendors but have been experiencing urban growth as well.

Nevertheless, Franco -- a master polymath -- draws audience members away from their own informational objections and into an emotional connection with Michael Glatze's confusion and suffocation. In the Halifax scenes, Franco's face tightens and his eyes narrow. His body language sags as if sapped by the city's quietude. One can feel Glatze's stark departure from San Fransisco's dopamine-rich external stimuli, and a social media obsessed culture which sustained him. By contrast, a quiet ruminative environment becomes an adversary, and as it does, I Am Michael elevates from dialogue heavy, voice over laden "Made for TV" territory into more enriching cinematic fare.

Kelly never offers any firm conclusions as to exactly why Glatze eventually denounced homosexuality in 2007, after which time he left Halifax to attend Bible School in Wyoming. The strongest piece of evidence, which is presented near the middle of the film, was Glatze's lengthy bout with heart palpitations, which he inferred may be a symptom of the same terminal heart disease that killed his father at a young age (Glatze's mother also died of cancer when he was 19). Glatze had to wait several months before his health insurance provider agreed to cover a confirmatory test to see if he inherited the condition. When the test revealed otherwise, Glatze interpreted both the positive result and the undiagnosed heart palpitations as a message from God to build a closer relationship with Christianity, and perhaps reunite with his Christian parents in heaven. Eventually, Glatze concluded this could not be done without renouncing homosexuality and went on to preach others to do the same.

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Rather than use these preceding events to breathlessly explain and logically deconstruct Glatze's conversion into an "ex-gay" individual, I Am Michael examines the tormented emotional process behind Glatze's decision to convert, and then questions if his post-conversion lifestyle is more tranquil. As with any good character study, this approach allows the audience to evaluate their sympathy (if any) for Glatze -- a nice reprieve in a day when all arguments are so pointed. This is particularly clear in Franco's several anxiety disorder scenes, which includes one particularly staggering shot of Franco hiding and heaving in a hot tub like a wounded animal, transcend any kind of debate for a simple plea for empathy.

Later on, in perhaps the movie's best scene at a party by the lake -- where beautiful young men wade across water against a dark purple sky -- everyone enjoys the physical energy of the moment while Glatze reads a religious pamphlet on the after life. He's immediately interrupted by Ben's gentle mocking, and everyone else's vacant conversation. The film cuts to an empty lake, where a single ripple silently expands to cover a wide body of water; a suggestion that Glatze wants to search for his identity elsewhere.

This quiet visual juxtaposition adds another layer to Michael's feeling of identity confusion as suspended between a seemingly binary choice between enjoying empowerment of one's sexual identity or taking in through a Christian lens evidence of a higher being. Then again, by showing both images, I Am Michael presents an even better question: Why can't Glatze have both?

While I Am Michael scrutinizes Glatze for attacking homosexuality as a godless institution, the film refuses to villainize him. Glatze's time at Bible school, where he restores both his physical health and rediscovers his everlasting willingness to question rigid authority, provides a sense of relief that Glatze may be on his way to owning who he is, rather than latching on tightly to varying institutions in order to meet his changing emotional needs. This is a universal lesson to be learned by all regardless of the film's subject matter, particularly in an era when its so easy to identify oneself with a barrage of trends and symbols which inundate our lives in today's information era. Thanks to Franco's continuously transformative performance, we can all surprisingly identify with Michael Glatze on some level.

However one chooses to own his or her life journey, there's no good reason to tell another person he or she shall suffer eternal damnation for taking a different path in life. One should pay close attention to I Am Michael's penultimate scene: a phone conversation between Ben and Michael, which deftly blends a melodramatic resolution for a powerfully shot, pointed directorial statement. It would be foolish to discuss the scene here, as it should be viewed with fresh eyes, whether God is a part of one's life or not.


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