“Turn or Burn,” reads the aggressive flyer Bennett (Zachary Quinto) holds in his hand, left coldly for him by his lover of ten years; “Homosexuality = Death.” It is exactly this sort of vicious propaganda which Bennett and his beloved partner Michael Glatze (James Franco) have devoted their lives to fighting against. And now, chillingly, unbelievably, Glatze himself has had an entire 180 degree turnaround of thought and denounced his homosexuality. He has now begun preaching the very words that he once protested against.
The film is director Justin Kelly’s feature-length debut. It is based on a New York Times Magazine article entitled ‘My Ex-Gay Friend’ by Benoit Denizet-Lewis, who describes the true-life story of self-exploration and revelation of gay rights activist Michael Glatze. It has a semi-documentary feel, jumping back and forth in time and location as announced by a series of captions.
No stranger to the gay scene in his career, Franco plays Glatze with intensity; conveying the anguish and confusion of his internal crisis through haunted eyes. The start of the film sees him at the height of his dynamic influence in the LGBT community, passionately discussing his outrage at the recent, famous homophobic slaughtering of Matthew Shepherd with his colleagues at XY Magazine. When he moves from Chicago to Halifax with Bennett, he experiences a slower pace of life and feels a slightly unsettled, despite the couple founding their own brand new magazine, Young Gay America (YGA). It seems that the big transition begins roughly somewhere around the introduction of a third lover, Tyler (Charlie Carver, who could be the long lost baby brother of Matt Damon). Although on the surface the threesome seems complete; a warm, loving, family unit; the saying ‘three’s a crowd’ might just ring true as we spot Glatze slowly but surely become detached and introverted from this point onwards. He spends increased time alone, gazing up into the dappled trees whilst out jogging with fear in his eyes, a dry cliche of the questioning of self-existence. A similarly tongue-in-cheek, repeated flashback sees a younger Glatze embracing his now deceased mother in a field of flowers against a forebodingly inky sky. He suffers frequent panic attacks that no doctor can explain, although he becomes convinced he is going to die of the same heart condition that killed his father. Isolated and stubborn, we painfully watch him push away his loved ones and run into the arms of religion. Before we know it, he has gone away to Bible school to become a pastor.
There is controversy surrounding whether Glatze was ever actually gay to begin with, as he claims in numerous interviews to have ‘woken up’ and been hit with ‘truth’ about who he truly is. His talks as joyously as someone who has come out, only he has gone back in. But I Am Michael, under the guise of diplomatic even-handedness, definitely chooses to portray Glatze as turning his back on the truth, out of fear and existential crisis leading him to latch onto religion for comfort. Kelly’s angle may be polite, but there is no question that it firmly shows up the ridiculous and poisonous side of Christianity: you only have to watch the sheer heartbreak of Bennett’s abandonment – played beautifully by Quinto – to grasp the film’s opinion that Glatze has gone to the dark side. Or the cheeky comedy of Glatze’s attempt and failure to resist the gorgeous temptation of Nico (Avan Jogia) in his brief sampling of a Buddhist retreat. Or any of the numerous comments he comes out with after his religious conversion, to his new wife Rebekah (Emma Roberts), or when meeting a bereft-looking Tyler for ‘closure’ (“I don’t drink coffee anymore,” he sniffs piously), which seem to exist with the sole purpose of raising the audience’s eyebrows to the rafters, if not eliciting a snort out loud.