I Am Michael (2017) - Can't Stop the Movies
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I Am Michael (2017)

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Michael Glatze co-founded the magazine Young Gay America and advocated for gay rights in the '90s.  In the mid '00s Michael shocks his loved ones by renouncing his, and aligning himself with religious groups opposed to, homosexuality.  What happened to Michael?  Justin Kelly directs I Am Michael, with the screenplay cowritten by Justin Kelly and Stacey Miller, and stars James Franco and Zachary Quinto.

Note added 8/8/2017: thanks to a commentator, I found out Michael changed his last name and is back in San Francisco per this story.  Given the unusual timeline and release of I Am Michael, which I dealt with in the review, my feelings on the movie remain unchanged but the news is something I want readers to take into account (especially with that final shot and sound of anxiety that closes I Am Michael.)

I considered writing this review of I Am Michael without a year or rating.  The year is complicated because I Am Michael technically debuted in 2015 with a limited release early 2017.  The rating because I'm not sure my system of, "Like," "Indifferent," or, "Dislike," is up to the task of providing an easy categorization for my feelings on I Am Michael.  But I am aware there are readers who will look at the rating of any system, stop to experience the art being reviewed, then return to take in the critique.

"Like" it is, as I don't want anyone skipping on a film as painful, complex, and empathetic to the depths the human soul can go to in the grips of anxiety.  Each one of those descriptors also make I Am Michael nearly unbearable at times and it was only through my grounding techniques that I felt strong enough to finish it.  With his first feature film, director and cowriter Justin Kelly announces himself in a big damn way.  That way isn't easy, but matters of the heart and faith rarely are.

I Am Michael is based on an article written by Benoit Denizet-Lewis, "My Ex-Gay Friend", that tries to delve deeper into what drove Michael Glatze (James Franco) to renounce his homosexuality for Christianity.  The two are compatible no matter what selective readers of the Bible would have you think.  Yet I can't ignore the hatred those who claim to act in the name of Christ shovel onto LGBT humans.  Kelly isn't interested in ignoring that hatred either, yet remains aware of the eternal fear of the human condition that drives people to hate.

Justin Kelly presents Michael as isolated in his dread with no easy answers reflected in an unsettling soundtrack.

Kelly's film isn't interested in, "The truth is in the middle," simplification.  He presents Michael, back in the '90s, as the kind of impassioned kid who thinks he can change the world with the right combination of catchy articles and splashy fonts.  The clubs where Michael spends his time are not lit like decadent hotbeds of sin, instead focusing on the fleeting reassurances of touch as the lighting illuminates Michael with his partner Bennett (Zachary Quinto) in and out of synch with the music.  There is nothing sinful about this life, just humans reassuring one another of their existence on the dance floor, and something Kelly keeps in mind when Michael begins his cross-country journey to shoot a documentary on LGBT kids.

The transition from joy to despair starts about twenty minutes in and is when Kelly shows a pained understanding of existential dread.  Warning signs are present, Michael lingering in a church after visiting the spot he poured his mother's ashes, looking at Bennett with suspicion, and - all at once - his world changes.  Kelly's look into Michael's anxiety attacks rivals Oliver Stone's portrayal of existential crises in Talk Radio (it's worth experiencing in full, but the scene in question is powerful on its own.)  Michael's dread isn't a carousel spinning out of control - it's a sickly brown overtaking his entire environment, it's a shadow cloaking his face while beads of water drip down his head, it's the uncertain moan of each breath as Michael becomes convinced this moment may be his last.

This is when I Am Michael hooked and repulsed me.  Michael's experience was too familiar as he crawled into bed barely able to control his breath desperate for reassurance from Bennett.  I couldn't distance myself from the experience because of how thoroughly Kelly overwhelms Michael's world with the browns and the shadows.  The music, by Jake Shears and Tim K, kept everything unsteady as wind billows in with off-kilter electronic moaning that echoes the Michael's cries as he sits alone in his fear.  There is no escaping the dread, not through love or music, and Michael is powerless against the shadows consuming his life.

Zachary Quinto is also excellent in I Am Michael, tapping into a weary sort of love that shows his affection for Michael while staying distant from his troubles.

Everything else that happens in I Am Michael is steeped in this moment and makes Michael's rejection of a core part of himself so painful.  Franco does not falter for a second while keeping his performance from falling into oblivion.  His speaking is measured, even when he's in happier times, placing an emotional barrier between himself and anyone he claims to love.  None of Franco's gestures or motions toward physical connection are as immediate as those early scenes in the club with Franco eventually looking like he's trying to burst from his skin and flee his surroundings.  Then there's his breathing, the cracked wheeze overtaking the soundtrack, whose absence allows Franco to relax into the illusion before dropping in a final shot where everything shatters with one last breath.

The screenplay, cowritten by Stacey Miller, is admirable in how it shows Michael's dread driving his hatred instead of religion.  Michael craved a structure for meaning and Christianity was there to provide.  We watch Michael utilize love as a weapon with the sad realization his short-term relationship with a Buddhist shows he could have just as easily been hurtful using another religion.  Michael couldn't follow the lessons of the gay religious people he met as part of the documentary, his dread roots itself far too deep into his soul for him to seek comfort.

I Am Michael is not an easy film to watch.  I nearly slipped back into the same anxiety that sent me on my trip through existential dread.  Yet, it's too powerful in its images, disquieting in its music, and excellently acted by Franco and company to ignore.  Take care if you decide to watch I Am Michael and you will be rewarded with one of the richest films of this or any year.

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I Am Michael (2017)

Directed by Justin Kelly.
Screenplay written by Justin Kelly and Stacey Miller.
Starring James Franco and Zachary Quinto.

Posted by Andrew

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  1. The real-life Michael Glatze quit his church a year ago and moved back to San Francisco, where he is rumored to be gay again.


    • Interesting, and I can understand some of the concerns with I Am Michael. By the timeline of this it looks like I Am Michael filmed before the additional news (filmed late 2014 after the wedding in 2013.) Thank you for the link, I think this is important to include in my review.

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