19 March, 2015

2015 Atlanta Film Festival Kicks Off with "I Am Michael" (****)

James Franco stars as Michael Glatze in "I Am Michael"

"You wanna go to Heaven, right?"
"If you're a moral person, then you'll choose heterosexuality in order to be with God."

And so opens Justin Kelly's directorial debut, "I Am Michael," the true story of former gay rights activist Michael Glatze's denouncement of homosexuality. In this first scene, Glatze—played by James Franco ("The Interview," "This Is the End," "Oz the Great and Powerful," "127 Hours," "Milk")—speaks to a teen boy who's having trouble reconciling his homosexuality with his spirituality. Glatze's reasoning here shocks anyone who knew him (or his name) just years before.

As detailed in Benoit Denizet-Lewis's 2011 article on which the film is based, Glatze was once an important face for young gay youth in America. In fact, he co-founded Young Gay America with his then long-term partner Benjie Nycum (changed to "Bennett" for the movie), whom Zachary Quinto ("Star Trek," TV show "The Slap") plays in the film. Glatze, Nycum, and Denizet-Lewis worked for XY Magazine in San Francisco where they championed the defense of young gay men's freedom to be themselves. Glatze and Nycum met their boyish counterpart Tyler, played by Charlie Carver, after moving to Halifax, Nova Scotia in 2001. The threesome formed a close relationship and set out across the country to document the social experience and persecution of young gays in America. The results became "Jim in Bold," an award-winning documentary whose footage "I Am Michael" samples.

Charlie Carver and Zachary Quinto in "I Am Michael"

This is an example of the great thing about "I Am Michael": Kelly doesn't need to rely on sensationalism to make Glatze's story any more compelling, and he knows this. Honoring Denizet-Lewis's authorship of the film's foundation with a Producer credit, Kelly makes repeated commitments to the story's accuracy without ever sacrificing the craft. Michael Glatze, as evidenced by his activism no matter his cause, is not a people-pleaser, and neither is Kelly. He could have easily chosen a point of view and told the story partially. Which Michael is the real Michael? Which Michael is telling the truth? But Glatze drew his own battle lines when he posted his announcement to WorldNetDaily.org in 2007. His claim that "gay" does not exist hurt and alienated his old supporters and transformed past decriers into biggest fans.

This external duality, though strong, is upstaged by Franco's portrayal of what Glatze faced internally. After suffering a series of severe heart palpitations thought to foreshadow the same heart condition that killed his father, Glatze's fears of mortality and nothingness begin to consume him. Scenes and surroundings known to exemplify fun and authenticity take new meaning for Glatze, adopting instead an undercurrent of dread and misunderstanding.

Zachary Quinto and James Franco in "I Am Michael"

Kelly repeats shots and uses flashbacks, weaving a connecting thread that balances the number of places and years Glatze's story transcends. The importance of this thread is more profound, though, than attempted cohesion (the result is still jarring at times); Kelly's point, which echoes that of Glatze and the title itself, is that Michael is still Michael—the same man who fought the stigmas labels hold. "I'm not an 'ex-gay,'" says a weary Franco near the film's end. "I'm just me."

Who can argue with that?

Though the line Kelly walks seems to detract from how deep the story travels, "I Am Michael" is at once controversial and uniting. Franco becomes Glatze, adopting speech affectations not unlike those he used for his portrayal of Allen Ginsberg in "Howl." But, because Franco is a good actor (no matter how controversial or uniting that sentiment may be), they're not quite the same. Quinto is the perfect foil, refracting Franco's tenuous intensity with aplomb. When Emma Roberts joins the game as Rebekah Fuller, Michael's now wife, we meet the final love triangle: Glatze, Rebekah, and God. Rebekah's role in this trinity serves as her graduation from young adult star to worthy dramatic lead.

Emma Roberts and James Franco star in "I Am Michael"

To Franco's and Kelly's surprise, Michael Glatze fully appreciated what they accomplished here. In this light, I'll go so far as to say that Glatze, Kelly, and Franco may share a fear—the very one about which Quinto's Bennett warns: "The thing that will really kill you is repressing who you really are. That's what you should really be afraid of." The beautiful thing about "I Am Michael" is what a collaboration on these terms can yield: a celebration of identity.

4 out of 5 stars.

"I Am Michael" is the 39th annual Atlanta Film Festival's Opening Night Presentation, screening this Friday night at The Plaza Theatre at 7:30pm! Tickets are sold out, which leaves 169 films and nine days left to enjoy! Explore the schedule and participate in this one-of-a-kind event—the largest of its kind in Georgia—and stay tuned for Reel Georgia's comprehensive coverage!

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