Sundance 2015: ‘I Am Michael’ lacks a clear cinematic viewpoint

FrancoI Am Michael
Written by Justin Kelly & Stacey Miller
Directed by Justin Kelly
USA, 2015

It’s painful to criticize a well-intentioned, socially relevant movie like I Am Michael.  Director Justin Kelly’s passion for the project is evident in every frame.  Still, there’s no denying this is a deeply flawed and surprisingly sparse film that fails to illuminate its frustrating protagonist.  Despite a few moments of emotional clarity and a solid performance from James Franco, I Am Michael leaves you feeling ambivalent and, quite frankly, bored.  This is a fascinating story that got lost in translation.

In 1998, Michael Glatze (Franco) was the editor of the influential San Francisco-based XY Magazine, a leading voice in the gay community.  Ten years later, Michael had renounced his homosexuality as a sin and was on the path to becoming an ordained minister.  What caused this dramatic shift?  How could Michael, once so outspoken in favor of the gay lifestyle, justify causing his former friends and colleagues such pain?  How did someone so stridently anti-religious become such a devout Christian?  Was he reprogrammed?  Did he truly believe he was no longer gay?  Was he physically attracted to women now?  What the hell was he thinking?

These are only a few of the questions you want I Am Michael to answer.  Sadly, in their zeal to give Michael’s personal journey a respectful treatment, the filmmakers have drained all the cinematic juice from a story that should be dripping with dramatic tension.  The result is a simplistic, listless docudrama that settles for superficial explanations rather than painfully deconstructing our hero’s inner conflict.

mom Franco

“Gay doesn’t exist, it’s a false identity.”

This early snippet of dialogue perfectly summarizes Michael’s personal philosophy on sexual identity, which he sees largely as an artificial distinction.  The problem, of course, is that Michael is dead wrong about this.  Sexuality is a deeply ingrained part of our personality; rooted in the complicated interaction between genetics and environment.  It is not a light switch to be turned off and on whenever you please.  As much as you want director Justin Kelly to call Michael on his bullshit, you want, even more, to understand how Michael reached these flawed conclusions.

Unfortunately, Michael’s reasoning never comes into focus because his character is so sloppily detailed.  We understand that Michael is a guy who doesn’t like to eliminate his options.  He spends his time drawing spirals on restaurant placemats because, as he asserts, “There is no beginning or end.”  We also know that Michael has a great deal of remorse over the loss of his parents.  “I just want to be with my parents in heaven,” he tells his gay lover, Bennett (Zachary Quinto).  When confronted by a health scare, he has massive panic attacks, only to credit his survival to random and unrelated sources.

Had Kelly just accepted Michael’s susceptibility to mystical and impulsive thinking, I Am Michael could have focused on the dramatic repercussions of his radical lifestyle changes.  Instead, he portrays Michael as a thoughtful man who carefully considers each of his actions.  This decision obligates him to more deeply examine Michael’s motivations; to deconstruct how a confident, actively gay man not only renounced his sexuality, but threw everyone he loved under a Hell-bound bus.  Wanting to live with mommy and daddy in Heaven doesn’t cut it.  It’s not compelling, it’s not convincing, and it sure as hell isn’t cinematic.

hetero Franco

Instead, we get lots of scenes with Michael walking around and thinking.  We get tortured phone calls to Bennett, relating revelations and decisions for which there seem to be no rational explanations.  Then there is more walking around and thinking.  Justifiably, the gay community is in an uproar, but Michael is now steadfastly convinced they are wrong.  This includes Bennett, a man who did nothing but show him unconditional love and support.  How could he justify this?  How does he get from Point A to Point B?  These are explosive questions, and yet we take the least dramatic path to the most uninteresting answers.

Based on Benoit Denizet Lewis’ New York Times Magazine article, “My Ex-Gay Friend,” the script by Kelly and co-writer Stacey Miller doesn’t feel much deeper than a 1000-word magazine piece.  Rather, the writers put all of their trust in James Franco to physically convey the emotions their script fails to elucidate.  Franco is phenomenal in his best dramatic work to date.  He throws himself into the role, passionately engaging the gay sex scenes like few other actors would.  His thousand-yard-stare and pain-wrenched face deftly convey an inner turmoil, even if we never learn what it is.  The script’s inability to cinematically demonstrate Michael’s motivations, however, undermines Franco’s performance.  Worse still, it means there is nothing happening for long stretches of time, which makes for languid pacing and, eventually, boredom.

All of the elements are in place for a sensational movie; the filmmakers are passionate, the actors are fearless, and the story is fascinating.  What’s missing is a bold directorial viewpoint to guide us through Michael’s story.  I Am Michael is Justin Kelly’s first feature and, unfortunately, it shows.  In presenting an evenhanded portrait of his oscillating hero, Kelly’s movie has become equally mystifying and vexing.  A filmmaker needs to hold his characters accountable for their actions, no matter how much he loves them.  That’s the only way that anyone learns anything.

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