Review: I Am Michael (Sundance 2015)
PLOT: A young gay activist (James Franco) renounces his homosexuality and starts a new life as a born-again Christian pastor.
REVIEW: I AM MICHAEL is nothing if not controversial. Apparently based on a true story, Justin Kelly's film gives James Franco an opportunity to play the most ambiguous part of his career, with his character's metamorphosis from gay advocate to fundamentalist bigot being inexplicable, and certainly the kind of transition that could really only be attributed to mental illness, although the film never quite goes there.
However, the film has a major failing in that Michael's story isn't as compelling as it should be. This is puzzling, as Franco's certainly good enough, and the story is absolutely something that should be intriguing, yet more often than not it feels episodic and strangely detached from the hurt Michael clearly inflicts on the people that love him.
Maybe there's more to the real Michael's story than we're given here as his transition feels so abrupt. He explains that in his youth he was religious, but it's still hard to figure out how a guy can go from being a tireless friend to his community to an eventual enemy. Of course, it could be that Michael's just a bad guy, although to its credit Kelly's film doesn't necessarily portray him that way. Rather, he comes off as a profoundly frustrated person who just wants to lead. He keeps saying that he's meant to help people (which he repeats in both his gay activism and latter days) but the truth seems to be more that he just wants people to follow him blindly. Again though, why isn't this more compelling?
Part of it may be due to the episodic structure, with us constantly jumping ahead months or years when maybe the focus could have been narrowed. One can't help but wonder what the movie would have been like if the entire focus had been on Michael's relationship with his loving boyfriend (Zachary Quinto) who gets left behind in the transition. Once Michael starts his transition to bible-quoting zealot, Quinto gets totally left behind, with very few moments outside of a climatic phone conversation (probably the best scene in the movie) showing us how he dealt with his live-in partner of several years leaving him in such a hurtful way. An extended episode when Michael tries to start his life over at a Buddhist Temple also feels slightly tacked-on and unimportant.
Michael's latter-life girlfriend, played by Emma Roberts, also gets short-shifted, with her initial discomfort and then embrace of Michael's past never feeling entirely convincing. She seems too smart to be won over so quickly by Michael's promise that he's now a heterosexual, and it feels like the movie pities her rather than makes a real attempt to understand her.
In the end, I AM MICHAEL isn't a great film, nor is it as emotionally draining as one would think given the subject. Rather, it feels like the movie keeps its audience at arm's length throughout. There's probably a very good movie to be made from the material, but this one is mediocre. Still, Franco and Quinto are great, and while it's dry, it's also always watchable.