True Story: Kelly’s Objective Exploration of Sensational Subject
For his directorial debut I Am Michael, Justin Kelly takes a provocative, controversial subject and crafts it into an objective case study that has more to say about the possibilities of socially sanctioned personalities than it does innate aspects of nature vs. nurture in the grand gay debate. Based on the magazine article by Benoit Denizet Lewis, which detailed the transformation of gay activist and magazine founder Michael Glatze as he transitioned into a Christian fundamentalist, Kelly’s austere handling sometimes seems overly sanitized and almost emotionally thankless. Neglecting to take any kind of stance about Glatze as a person or the situation, Kelly nobly skirts around demonizing him, though viewed as a tangle of slippery slopes this interpretation is still subject to outside projection. Glatze still comes across as either a grossly manipulative sociopath, or an emotionally conflicted human with a significant personality disorder, yet the importance of Kelly’s exploration of this situation manages to deflate the influential power of it.
In 1998 San Francisco, Michael Glatze (James Franco) is the successful editor of gay magazine XY while simultaneously in a loving, caring relationship with Bennett (Zachary Quinto). But as Bennett is the breadwinner, Glatze is forced to follow his partner to Novia Scotia when he takes a new job. There, Glatze tries to make the best of it, working on a brand new magazine as the couple invites a third member into their relationship, Tyler (Charlie Carver). Still somewhat unchallenged, Glatze even makes a documentary about gay youth in the US, Jim in Bold, which brings him into contact with a staunchly gay Christian (Jacob Loeb). Soon after, Glatze suffers a health scare that has him convinced he has the same heart condition that killed his father, which sets off a series of panic attacks, though doctors say it’s in his head. Glatze thinks he had the disease but it’s God that has saved him, thus beginning a descent into Glatze’s rejection of the ‘gay lifestyle,’ leading him to Bible school and into the arms of a naïve young woman (Emma Roberts).
As Glatze, Franco gives a surprisingly sobering and sincere performance, somewhere towards what must be the zenith of his own spectrum of queer characters. But Kelly keeps safe distance from everyone here, including from Glatze’s partner Bennett and extra addition Tyler. In the latter half of the film, Zachary Quinto is also impressive in a handful of potentially upsetting sequences, though it’s a quiet goodbye between Charlie Carver’s Tyler and Glatze that registers more emotionally. The release of titillating production stills from a three-way sex scene ends up being a non-sequitur by the time we get to Kelly’s shadowy rendition (perhaps those dissatisfied with the lack of graphic sex should reexamine just exactly why they think that’s wholly necessary—we don’t need to see gay actors engaging in heterosexual activity when they cross the same pond), instead focusing on a particular set of events that may explain such a striking transformation.
At the end of the day, Michael’s story concerns only one person’s experience and cannot be used to justify, interpret, or deny the existence of LGBT lives, which was the fear and fury surrounding Glatze’s bizarre transformation. But this discomfort is exactly what makes I Am Michael an important film, and Kelly’s examination attempts to build an honest discourse.
Glatze’s descent into Christianity is revealed as a downward spiral that had more to do with innate personality traits concerning control. Though not written as the most innately intelligent individual, it’s clear that Glatze prized making an impression and rallying others for a cause. But it’s much more difficult to rally queer culture, and it seems clear that Glatze got lost in superficial elements of a subculture that hasn’t had the same historical privilege of self-love and self-worth afforded members of mainstream institutions.
The introduction of a third member in their relationship seems to be one of several fissures for Glatze, a disconnection from his audience initially exacerbated by the move from San Francisco to Nova Scotia. But whatever the wish to explain Glatze’s actions, which came at an unfortunate time in American culture when this was exactly the type of ammo being used to deny LGBT communities equal rights, films and stories like I Am Michael are as equally important as their celebratory counterparts—this is part of a conversation of culturally condoned self-loathing. And while we may not agree with people or fictional characters that behave in ways hurtful to causes both of the disenfranchised and otherwise, their stories are equally important and worthy of discussion. To neglect them lends them power they don’t deserve, and the upsetting, unnerving fall from grace of Michael Glatze is simply the tale of one very confused man’s woes.
Reviewed on Janaury 24th at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Premieres Programme. 98 Mins.