The BFI London LGBT Film Festival has kicked off its 2015 edition on Thursday night at BFI Southbank, under the new Flare banner inaugurated last year, with the opening night gala screening of Justin Kelly’s feature debut I Am Michael, starring James Franco, Zachary Quinto and Emma Roberts among others.
Based on the New York Times article that told the true story of Michael Glatze, a gay activist turned anti-gay Christian pastor, this is a one of kind, thought-provoking film destined to kick-start endless conversations over the mother of all diatribes: sexual orientation versus religious faith.
When it comes to such a controversial topic, we’re used to seeing queer stories about characters that struggle with their sexuality because of their overbearing religious upbringing and eventually are driven away from their religious faith in order to affirm their identity and live life to the fullest.
What makes I Am Michael compellingly unique is that we practically witness a coming out story in reverse as a gay man, and gay-rights activist nonetheless, who’s committed to battle the concept of sexual orientation as identity-defining, winds up having a crisis about his true self and his place in the world which leads him to abandon his life as a gay man in order to seek the truth through religious faith.
The multi-hyphenated and omnipresent James Franco offers a believable portrayal of the title character as he goes through a metamorphosis that obviously doesn’t occur overnight. From the gay-lively San Francisco where he co-edits the iconic XY Magazine, antagonizing the stigma that often results in homosexuals being abused, (he disconcertingly follows the chronicle of the horrifyingly iconic hate-crime in Laramie, Wyoming, where gay teen Matthew Shepard was brutally tortured and murdered), Glatze moves to Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada when Bennett (Quinto), his architect-boyfriend, is offered a job opportunity he can’t refuse.
Michael, however, has moved reluctantly and struggles to settle in the new town and find purpose as he claims he’s not cut for a 9 to 5 job. As he wanders into a gay bar one night, he bumps into Tyler (an impressive Charlie Carver) a cute college student whom he drags home for a threesome but actually winds up becoming a good friend of his and Bennett’s. They even take him along on a road trip to film a documentary that delves deeper into the themes Michael has been exploring with his magazine work and that seems the right project for him to regain focus with.
Yet it’s during this trip that Michael first realizes something strange is stirring up within him after interviewing Cory (rising talent Devon Graye), a gay Christian student who believes sexual orientation and religious faith can co-exist. Michael is hit by witnessing Cory comfort a fellow student in mourning by gathering other students around her in prayer to give her strength.
What eventually pushes Michael to experience his crisis of conscience though is a health scare he obsesses over to the point that one day he decides to pray about it. So when he’s off the medical hook, Michael convinces himself that God had listened to his prayers hence he can’t help the need to jump on a spiritual journey. Before the stupefied eyes of Bennet and Tyler, Michael goes from studying the Bible on his own to exploring other religions, to eventually settle on Christianity and enroll in a Bible School in rural Wyoming where he meets the naïve Rebekah (played by the consistently good Emma Roberts) whom he winds up starting a relationship with.
The greatest accomplishment of I Am Michael is undoubtedly its impartial depiction of true events which some people might find lacking a certain vis but I found an impeccable narrative choice from the promising debut writer/director Justin Kelly. After working as assistant director and assistant editor, Kelly became a feature film editor whilst developing his own projects and now he's finally made the jump to fully fledged filmmaker under the blessing of Gus Van Sant who executive-produced the film and whose influence on tone and style can most definitely be felt throughout.
Especially as a gay man who can relate to the matters at hand (to a certain extent), I think Kelly has done a marvelous job at telling this story in a non judgemental and non derisive way as he lets the facts speak for themselves. We witness a man who’s spiraling out of control and finds solace in his spirituality, yet he reaches certain extremes that clearly need no further nudging to come across as perplexing. His eventual detour to become the pastor of his own church in fact speaks volumes about the arbitrary nature of religious beliefs and yet that seed of doubt in the search for meaning and comfort during this overwhelming journey of ours can be a powerful thing in both directions.
Kelly’s highest accomplishment is to have vividly captured the evolving state of our path in life and the many facets that affect our psyche. I for once still struggle with the idea that my sexual orientation has to be a deterrent in order to fully practice my religion. Yet as a person of integrity I feel like a hypocrite in going to mass without being able to take sacraments unless I were to live a celibate life. So lately I’ve grown apart from the organized side of my Catholic faith and yet I miss it and despite not being an activist, I try to be an advocate to find a middle ground between these two worlds.
Sadly though the reality of facts is still bitterly separatist on both fronts as the film eloquently shows and indeed most people seem to find my being a Catholic and yet a recently engaged gay man, odd or unbelievable to say the least. Thankfully art can be a huge comfort and cinema is a powerful forum to help us process ideas, feelings, opinions and emotions. Like a filmmaker brilliantly said at a BFI Flare screening this weekend: this is our church.
I Am Michael is awaiting a UK release date. Watch this space for updates.
BFI Flare continues at BFI Southbank every day until Sunday March 29th.
You can get tickets on the official website
Even if a screening is deemed sold-out there are always some extra tickets at the box office on the day of the performance. Just arrive at the holding queue early and enjoy your film!
Francesco Cerniglia – Film Editor