Review: James Franco is the right guy to play gay-or-not in true story ‘I Am Michael’

PARK CITY – I would guess there is no working actor right now more suited to playing the lead in “I Am Michael” than James Franco.

Walking into the film this morning, I didn't know what it was about. That's how I like to try to see as many movies as possible at Sundance, because it leaves the opportunity for surprises. As soon as it started, though, I recognized the material, and I became intrigued to see how they were going to approach telling the story of MIchael Glatze, who is best known for being a former high-profile advocate for gay rights who “went straight” in a very public way after a health scare, eventually becoming a Christian pastor and proclaiming himself heterosexual. That's a tough story to tell without demonizing either side of things, and I wasn't sure I really wanted to see a movie that played Glatze as a hero.

After all, his work was never just about what he personally liked or wanted. He was a major figure in the lives of many young gay Americans for his work on “XY Magazine” and, later, “YGA Magazine,” and his work helped untold numbers of people find the courage to come out to friends and family and to live proudly. He fostered a sense of community, and he worked hard to break down stereotypes about what defined someone as gay. When he published a blog post saying that he no longer identified as gay, it was a huge slap in the face to so many people who had taken comfort in his words.

Beyond that, it also destroyed the long-term relationship he had with Benjie Nycum (called Bennett in the movie and played by Zachary Quinto), who had been his boyfriend for over a decade. It must have been confounding for Nycum to watch this formerly out-and-proud activist suddenly renounce everything that defined him, and it wasn't any easier for Michael, at least according to the film. Instead of playing this as a direct “gay or not gay” binary decision, the film shows that Michael is constantly searching for identity in any number of ways, and that he's the kind of person who will likely never be satisfied, who will never feel finished.

What makes Franco so right for the role is the way he has consistently resisted any effort to put him into an easily defined box, sexually speaking. I can't think of any other mainstream actor who has been so openly willing to explore gay sexuality and our attitudes towards it in his films. There's the playful way his relationship with Seth Rogen has evolved from “Freaks & Geeks” to “Pineapple Express” to “This Is The End” to “The Interview,” with subtext gradually becoming text. There are the films like “Howl” or “Int. Leather Bar” where he overtly plays into the way people view him, or where he happily pushes the boundaries of what we are used to seeing our mainstream actors do. People love to make jokes about Franco, but the truth is that there is a fearlessness to him that is driven by what feels like an intense curiosity about people, and more and more often these days, he seems to be following his own muse, completely beyond caring about what people think.

The film certainly doesn't treat Michael as a hero for what he did, but it also doesn't just make him the object of scorn that would have been so easy. As he explores his faith, he takes a brief detour into becoming a Mormon, and there was a fair amount of superior laughter from the crowd here at every mention of that faith. The thing is, this isn't a joke, and there are plenty of people who work to reconcile a life in the church and a life where they are able to proudly self-identify as whatever sexuality they choose. It seems appropriate that I saw this today with a friend who is an openly gay Mormon and who has written about his own attempts to reconcile those ideas. Unlike Michael, many people are able to fully embrace both identities, but Michael seems determined to shut off that part of himself, the part that craved love from Bennett. I can't think of anything worse than completely denying your own heart, and the film actually builds to an ambiguous ending instead of the sort of triumph you would expect from most “based on a true story” films.

It's rare for any film to treat faith seriously unless it's designed specifically to play to that market, and the idea of making a film that is unsparing in its depiction of both gay male sexuality and actual issues of faith seems next to impossible. Justin Kelly, who wrote and directed the film, doesn't do much for me as a visual filmmaker, and I think the entire film has a sort of TV movie aesthetic that doesn't do it any favors. But as the film goes on, it manages to build a genuine sort of emotional strength, and Franco's portrayal of this sad, confused, yearning man ends up being very affecting. Quinto is also very good, and I like that they never turn Bennett into anything other than a disappointed friend, someone who wants happiness for Michael no matter where that lies.

As a theatrical experience, “I Am Michael” is fairly forgettable, but it does manage to pierce in places, and it carries a cumulative charge that is bigger than any of the individual emotional pieces.

“I Am Michael” has its first public screening at Sundance today.