Justin Kelly’s I am Michael opens with a clean-cut James Franco, preaching the name of the Lord to a young, confused homosexual, proclaiming that his lifestyle “choice” is a sin, and won’t allow the impressionable youth a place in heaven. We then proceed back in time, 12 years beforehand, where Franco’s Michael is one of the most prominent and fervent gay activists in San Francisco. For a man to change his outlook on life in such a drastic way seems almost implausible – and you wouldn’t be blamed for feeling somewhat apprehensive about whether Franco can carry such a nuanced, complex role and have us adhere to this plight. But he does – and as such, we most certainly do.
Based entirely – and remarkably – on a true story, it’s the late ’90s and Michael Glatze writes for gay publication XY Magazine, living with his long-term boyfriend Bennett (Zachary Quinto), and persistently campaigning for equality. Eventually the pair co-founded Young Gay America magazine, but following a series of heart palpitations, Michael became fearful of death, and what may come of him beyond the grave. Eventually he starts to take an intrigue into Christianity, which manifests into him joining the church, and denouncing his homosexuality – much to the immense displeasure of his former movement.
Often with films that feature protagonist’s who face a monumental change of personality, it can be a real struggle to adhere to and invest in. But Kelly has presented this tale with a minimum contrivance, and it’s easy to believe in Michael’s journey. Franco must take the credit for this accomplishment, and following rather forgettable performances from the actor in both Queen of the Desert and Every Thing Will Be Fine – also both showing at Berlinale – this is one his career’s finest. The entire picture hinges on whether he can pull this off, and he triumphs. You believe in him being a gay activist as much as you do a religious cleric. He has a warmth in his eyes in the first half of the feature, and we see the colour slowly disappear from he cheeks, as he eventually makes for something of a cold figure, and we can see the lost boy within him. It’s a slow and vitally subtle regression.
It also makes for a protagonist who you never quite hate. You despise everything Michael grows to stand for – to be abhorrently homophobic, but you feel sorry for him above anything else. He’s confused, he’s scared and he’s pitiful. Effectively this film revolves around the theme of identity (or lack of) – as Michael doesn’t know who he is, or what we wants. Though this leads in to the film’s one paramount flaw – that this is so much about Michael, we deviate away from the supporting characters, which is particularly disappointing where Bennett is concerned, not allowing the brilliant Quinto enough of a platform to display his distinct capabilities. His reaction to his boyfriend’s news is intriguing, and yet one that remains mostly unexplored.
Though any self-respecting audience member would support Michael’s cause early on, and deplore what he stands for in the latter stages – Kelly very much remains an impartial figure, which is vital in delving into this tale and showing us both sides, without picking either one. This is an essential quality in a filmmaker, to let his audience make their own minds up. However as a result this film may just find itself caught between two communities, conflicting markets who may both be put off by the filmmaker’s own lack of neutrality – but hopefully a distributor will ignore that and put this out there anyway, because here is a film that deserves to be seen.