Michael Glatze was a hero to the gay community. And then he was a villain.
In the late '90s and early 2000s, he was a leading advocate for LGBT rights, a devoted student of queer theory, and an editor at the influential XY magazine. Then, after a health scare at 29, he renounced his gay identity, embraced Christian fundamentalism, married a woman, became a pastor of his own church, and started calling his old friends "abnormal." As Glatze pivoted from one sexual and religious identity to another, his own motivations remained inscrutable; he was, and remains, a true iconoclast in an era where the kind is practically extinct. How can one man embody such extremes within himself? If we could answer such a question, we'd be closer to understanding how such extremes can coexist in the same country in the first place.
I Am Michael, a dramatization of Glatze's life based on a New York Times Magazine story by his former friend and colleague Benoit Denizet-Lewis, finds a way to speak authentically to both halves of its subject's journey, and refuses to judge any of it. This was the right decision, even if it sometimes feels like writer-director Justin Kelly is taking the easy way out of tough questions in the process. James Franco plays Glatze with his usual mercurial air, smartly deployed so that each of his actions, no matter how contradictory, comes to feel sincere in his eyes. Despite some wooden line readings, Franco gives himself fully to the challenge of rendering Glatze with truth and resolve. If you had the misfortune of seeing his most recent performance as a repulsive, infantile tech bro in Why Him?, then this is a welcome reminder he can be a fearless and sensitive actor.
After an opening in which Glatze "counsels" a confused gay teenager to choose to be straight, the film flashes back to a galvanizing moment for gay America: the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming. Living in San Francisco with his long-term boyfriend Bennett (Zachary Quinto), Glatze recognizes at that moment an urgent need for young gay men to know they aren't alone in the world. When Bennett's new job moves the pair to Halifax, they invite a third into their bedroom (Charlie Carver) and embark on a new cross-country tour of gay youth to make a documentary and, ultimately, break ground on Young Gay America magazine.
One of the things that defines Glatze as a character is how he dives into everything with utter conviction, and at first it's not all that apparent that something may be eating at him inside. But when a sudden rush of panic attacks lands him in the hospital, and he finds himself revisiting memories of his dead parents, it's enough to instill in him the kind of panic that accompanies those seeking an afterlife. He would like to get to Heaven, a place whose American ambassadors in the 2000s insisted was only for heterosexuals. Once Glatze decides to abandon his partners in Halifax and seek a new purpose for himself, we, along with Bennett, must square the image of the man we've come to know in the film's first half — passionate, principled, proud — with the one who emerges in the back half, who abandons everything to attend Bible school in Wyoming as the film circles back to the state a full ten years after Shepard's death.
"I'm not an 'ex-gay.' I'm just me," Glatze tells his new girlfriend, Rebekah (Emma Roberts), a fellow Bible scholar. And indeed, Kelly's script is careful to show its protagonist as only himself, on the outside of communities looking in, whether on a brief detour to a Buddhist meditation retreat or sparring with his instructor at Bible school. The film nestles a powerful point about belonging and trying to live in accordance with one's own truth, though an over-reliance on clunky dialogue and Glatze's narration (via his blog posts) can make things feel too plodding and telegraphed.
I Am Michael is being released a full two years after its Sundance premiere, despite the presumably marketable participation of Franco, Quinto, Roberts, and executive producer Gus Van Sant. (In the interim, Kelly and Franco re-teamed on a very different based-on-truth queer story: the gay-porn crime drama King Cobra.) One assumes the long wait was due to the film's uncompromising subject matter, since explicit sex and explicit prayer don't often mix onscreen. But perhaps it's good fortune we're seeing this movie emerge in a 2017 America. Two years ago, it would have been easy to simply interpret the movie as another one of Franco's playful public tweakings of his own sexuality. Today there's more meat to the story. Glatze's journey across an entire ideological divide to find the best version of himself, on what the film insinuates may be a fruitless quest, now happens in the context of a country that is doing the same, with an outcome just as uncertain. Perhaps, in this sense, he was a prophet.