Thursday, March 19, 2015

BFI Flare 2015: I Am Michael

I Am Michael jumps chronologically around the ten years between Michael Glatze (James Franco) being a prominent gay activist and queer magazine editor in San Francisco and Canada and him becoming an evangelical, anti-homosexual Christian preacher in Wyoming.  A kind of going-back-in-the-closet true story that both delighted the Christian community and horrified the gay community around 10 years ago.

At first Michael is shown picking-up guys in nightclubs and taking ecstasy with his boyfriend Bennett (Zachary Qunito), before being somewhat radicalized by news of the tragic death of Matthew Shepard.  They eventually move to Canada due to Bennett getting a job, where they also meet Tyler (Charlie Carver) – a young gay radical that joins them as they live as a threesome.  The lovers decide to go on a road trip around the West Coast to lecture about LGBT rights and make a documentary about young teenagers telling their stories, where increasingly Michael complains about having heart palpitations and insists on getting advice from lots of medical professionals.  After finally getting the all-clear, he starts to attribute his recovery to a higher power and makes moves to get in touch with different religions and clear his head (and remove his homosexuality). 

James Franco is becoming the central poster boy for gay rights awareness in America.  From Milk and Howl to the experimental vanity project Interior: Leather Bar and even The Interview (he does passionately kiss Kim Jong-Un after all…) he has tried to normalize and recognize gay love and sexuality like no other actor – all the whilst publically teasing us all about his own orientation… In I Am Michael he is complex and multi-dimensional as Michael and manages to portray this figure throughout his descent into religion whilst at no point turning him into a villain.  You might not agree with his journey or his motivations, but it is clear that it is his own personal struggle.

Filmed on a modest budget, the film feels a bit like this year’s Behind The Candelabra a real-life made-for-TV movie with A-list stars that asks questions about gay relationships.  The much-anticipated (and frankly, somewhat stale) threesome between Franco, Quinto and Carver is the kind of scene that would worry major distributors in the same way as Soderbergh’s Liberace film famously did.

Ironically, the most interesting dynamic between any of the characters is between Glatze and his new strictly conservative and chaste girlfriend Rebekah (Emma Roberts).  Her coming to terms with his sinful past before embracing him as a model reflection of born-again Christianity is utterly compelling and undermines the chemistry between Quinto’s somber Bennett and Franco’s vulnerable Michael.

The central question that is reflected is whether Homosexuality (or other orientations) is a lifestyle ‘choice’ or simply an innate part of someone’s personality. And regardless of how good this film is as a biopic, it would have been infinitely most interesting and insightful if presented as a documentary with the (still living and public) Michael Glatze himself, as well as friends, family and other commentators from both ‘sides’ of the issue.  This issue is so contentious and toxic that not many people are going to watch this film and change their minds on it, but Franco and first-time director Justin Kelly have done an admirable job of (hopefully) bringing it to the mainstream.

I Am Michael was this year's opening night gala at BFI Flare

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