'I Am Michael': Sundance Review

Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival
Too many voiceovers and too much bad music crowd out the fascinating parts of this biopic.

Justin Kelly's feature debut stars James Franco as a gay man turned Christian pastor, Zachary Quinto as his ex-boyfriend and Emma Roberts as his girlfriend.

Queer-curious actor James Franco has played both gay and straight roles in the past, and he gets to do both almost simultaneously in I Am Michael, the workmanlike story of Michael Glatze, a former gay magazine editor in a relationship who, after a health scare, became a Christian pastor with a girlfriend. This feature debut from writer-director Justin Kelly, executive produced by Gus Van Sant, has an intriguing, real-life premise and a marketable cast that also includes Zachary Quinto and Emma Roberts.

Thankfully, the screenplay doesn’t portray the story in simple terms of good or evil, but that doesn’t mean that there’s quite enough nuance or insight to constantly elevate the material above the level of a well-made-but-TV-ready biopic. The film’s qualities aside, its subject will also make it problematic to market what's the target audience for a story moving between two almost mutually exclusive communities? though a brave boutique distributor might take a chance on this.

Glatze (Franco) is living it up in San Francisco in 1998 as the editor of the popular gay magazine XY shown in an early montage of articles and bylines that also includes the writer’s then-colleague Benoit Denizet-Lewis, who would later write a New York Times article about Glatze’s transformation (which Kelly and co-screenwriter Stacey Miller used as the basis for their screenplay). At this time, Glatze is already in a relationship with Bennett (Quinto), who convinces his lover to move up to Nova Scotia with him when he’s offered an important job there.

See more The Scene at Sundance Film Festival 2015

But the ebullient and outspoken Michael is bored in Nova Scotia, and even the addition of a hot young thing, Tyler (Teen Wolf’s Charlie Carver, who looks like Russell Tovey’s younger brother), to their relationship doesn’t seem to offer the fulfillment that Michael is craving. He launches a new gay magazine and is involved in making a documentary, Jim in Bold, about the experiences of young gay people in the U.S., many of them victims in one way or another of their churches or strictly religious families (an actual excerpt of Jim in Bold is seamlessly blended into footage of Franco, Quinto and Carver as they shoot the project). But instead of providing Mike with an outlet for his energy and creativity, he’s touched most by an encounter with a young gay student (Jacob Loeb, Franco’s co-star in The Sound and the Fury) who’s openly gay and insists on holding on to his Christian beliefs.

After a health scare, during which Glatze believes he might be suffering from the same heart problems that killed his father, and a visit to the tree where he took his mother’s ashes after she died, the protagonist starts to question how he’s living his life and what’s really important. To give audiences a closer look at the transformation that’s slowly taking hold in Michael’s brain (Christians might prefer the term “soul”), Kelly and Miller add frequent voiceovers that quote Glatze’s blog posts about how he evolved from an out-and-proud gay man to a student at Bible school, where he meets a fellow student he falls in love with (Roberts, cute in that wholesome way but not given terribly much to do).

These voiceovers help fill in the blanks a little too easily, and a few more actual conversations with those closest to him would have helped give the film more emotional heft and provided the audience with more opportunities to empathize with the protagonist. At the moments these real-life conversations and arguments do occur, such as when Bennett and Mike discuss the "God issue" of Michael's magazine; when they fight just before Mike leaves Bennett; or when Tyler comes to say goodbye before he leaves, they provide simple, touching and effective insights into Mike’s inner struggles and the troubles those that love him are having trying to adjust to his new personality.

Franco has the most thankless job here, practically having to do an anti-makeover, transforming from someone outgoing and unapologetically gay to someone afraid of death, who seeks wholesomeness in God and the Scriptures. It’s one of the super-busy actor's more subdued performances, which helps make both the gay and born-again Michael more believable and, despite their enormous differences, of one piece. Quinto and Carver provide able support and their unusual three-way arrangement with Franco is believable, even if their buzzed-about threesome ends in a rather anticlimactic tangle of manly legs. Daryl Hannah has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo as an employee at a Buddhist retreat where Glatze spends some time in limbo, thinking his model-handsome gay Buddhist friend (Avan Jogia, a soulful presence) is God’s way of testing him. Clearly, Kelly knows what he's doing with his actors.

Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt keeps most of the interiors penumbral, while outdoor scenes are drenched in natural light, thus mirroring Glatze’s growing interior darkness and search for something outside himself that will make him see the light again. The film’s extremely heterogeneous score, however, doesn’t enrich the material so much as occasionally take it perilously close to bargain-basement TV. The film's closing scene is nicely restrained yet has a pleasing or horrifying sting in the tail, depending on where the viewer's coming from.

Production companies: RabbitBandini Productions, Gotham Group, That’s Hollywood Pictures

Cast: James Franco, Zachary Quinto, Emma Roberts, Charlie Carver, Avan Jogia, Daryl Hannah, Lesley Ann Warren

Director: Justin Kelly

Screenplay: Justin Kelly, Stacey Miller, based on an article by Benoit Denizet-Lewis

Producers: Michael Mendelsohn, Vince Jolivette, James Franco, Scott Reed, Ron Singer

Executive producers: Gus Van Sant

Director of photography: Christopher Blauvelt

Production designer: Michael Barton

Costume designer: Brenda Abbandandolo

Editor: Aaron I. Butler

Music: Jake Shears, Tim Kvasnosky

Casting: Cynthia Huffman

Sales: CAA/The Exchange

No rating, 101 minutes

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