And so it went, in one day at the festival I happened to sit in on two films that dealt specifically with issues of identity by way of a homosexual protagonist. Except, whereas in purely narrative form Eisenstein finds himself in the ‘paradise’ that is Guanajuato (a point that I regrettably forgot to mention yesterday), most would argue that the real life I Am Michael subject Michael Glatze struggles, and loses, the stability of what seems to be a fully formed identity. In an interview about the film, director Justin Kelly admitted a specific focus on identity to counter any fears that the film might lionize the troubling ex-gay case of Glatze, stating “the film is about so much more than gay men becoming straight. It’s about identity, why we label one another, why people want to be a part of a group, and the power of belief.” This can be seen all over a film that, oddly, doesn’t choose to outright antagonize its troubled protagonist (and with little research, it seems that there is plenty of publicly made statements it could do so with), but to explore how he came to such a radical shift in his sexuality. I’d still suggest that, by the end’s time, the film rightly is questioning the validity of its central character’s conviction and the ramifications on self it has, but the more even-handed exploration of the “why” question does make the film feel all the more refreshing. Moreover, I Am Michael is lifted from its rather routine structure by the tandem of its compelling source material and the incredibly nuanced performance of James Franco at the center (not quite at Alien level, but close); a combination of Franco’s acting, the cinematographer’s framing of him, and the soundtrack at the most dire moments of the film brings out the more tragic tone to Glatze’s denial of self that is explored through the narrative. Moreover, most spectators will find their voice in the impassioned response of Quinto’s character, Bennett, who repeatedly reminds Michael to remember of all of the young people he is hurting with his actions.
Kelly explores the issue of identity from the beginning, seemingly giving a voice to every side: sexual orientation might just be a modern construct, it also might also impart a feeling of community, or it might be something that an individual shouldn’t be defined by. The earlier portions of the film set up the idea of this identity as community, also integrating an important sense of time and space through hearkening to other, notable real events. It spends the first half of the film setting up the relationship between Michael, Bennett, and the incoming Tyler while portraying Michael’s still dogmatic views, but on the side of his homosexual identification. This might be through an impassioned statements against fundamentalist Christians that are persecuting gay youth, or through his obsession with the ‘endless’ shape of a spiral, but those strong views are still there. Around the midpoint of the film is when things start to get interesting, and Kelly shows the slow process through which Michael’s stability unfurls. It begins with seeing a girl dealing with the recent loss of her mother–a life event that, through one of the film’s misgivings, a flashback, we know Michael can relate with. When Michael begins to have panic attacks, and envisions himself as having a rare heart condition his father had, one can see him beginning to attempt to pray. Then, when he is cleared of having this illness, he believes God has saved him. No doubt, we never get the feeling this is true during these sequences, but Kelly does the best he can with the technical tools available to him to give weight to Franco’s performance and attempt to instill the same fear upon Michael upon the audience (after all, to this point, he has not rejected his identity). Other factors, too, play a part in Michael’s transformation: one gets the sense that when he re-visits his sister, who has lost touch with him sense coming out, he yearns for the respect and closeness with his family that he lost. This manifests itself even in its fear of death, when he yells at Bennett that he merely wants to make sure he can spend his after-life in heaven with his parents despite earlier claiming that he doesn’t believe any God would punish love. Through all of this the message runs clear: identity is, in some ways artificially constructed by the pressures of surrounding influences and fears. While the portrayal of these events might not antagonize Glatze, they certainly lend a tragic lens for how this sort of person might come to, behind all of these pressures, outright deny who they are and were.
The film leaves no doubt, despite Michael’s best insistence’s that he loves his fiance by the end, that he struggles with this artificial change. It’s seen in the way he still romantically interacts with a Buddhist man after leaving Bennett, and while exploring the idea of faith. When visiting his sister, he goes home with a woman, but cannot go through with the sexual acts. He calls Bennett crying multiple times, and can’t seem to get over this past relationship despite how coldly he acts towards Tyler, who attempts to tell Michael what he meant to him. He even seems visibly nervous at the end, as a new pastor, waiting for his people to come in to church. But the film’s point isn’t truly to weigh in on what we should think of Michael’s decision or new personality–I think his real life comments do plenty for that–it’s to look at how we construct identity and faith, and the tragedy of what this might to do a weaker person, full of fear. It also lends credence as to the communal tragedy of Michael’s actions by setting up all of the young people who he has saved, and then comparatively showing him asking a struggling, young gay man to renounce his true self in order to be closer to God. Perhaps this is the one area of the film I wish had been expanded on–no doubt, this action had consequences beyond the Tyler-Bennett relationship and beyond the myriad of newspaper headlines the film portrays, but outside of this interaction with a young gay man, we never really get a true sense of the far reaching ramifications of Michael’s actions.
I can’t underscore enough, however, how wonderfully James Franco plays this part, but I also don’t think any discussion of this film can really explicitly ignore the way it interacts with his public persona. There’s always been a semi-lingering question as to his sexuality, given many facts including all of the times he’s playfully portrayed himself has having homoerotic feelings for his co-stars (Seth Rogen, in particular) and his willingness to play homosexual parts (something that many actors seem not to be willing to do); the lack of high profile relationships and, despite being perhaps the most adept celebrity at social media the relative privacy of his personal life also lends to this. James Franco, in some ways, was probably cast because he represents a sort of fluidity of sexual orientation, or at least a refusal to be boxed in by our most stiff notions of how sexuality works. This doesn’t go as far as Michael’s refusal of his orientation, but it certainly adds another layer of complexity to any issue of how sexual identity works outside of social pressures, and questioning how that defines a person.