Justin Kelly’s directional debut shines as a touching look at a young man’s troubling identity crisis
America seems to be having an existential crisis. The country—which teeters decade by decade between left wing politics and conservative values—will soon begin yet another transitionary period that will leave the legacy of the country up in the air. This time, it could potentially cause a rupture in the buildup to the inclusive, understanding and sociable society that so many Americans dream to have (as evidenced by the popular vote). With a Republican majority in the legislative, executive and what will most certainly be the judiciary branch, the US is poised to have a tumultuous few years as the risk of further division between its citizens seems inevitable. From the dismantlement of gay rights and a national healthcare system to strong immigration overhauls and a growing risk to global geopolitical stability, America is set to undo many of the milestones that it had so arduously fought for over the last few years.
It appeared for a while that perhaps America was ready to begin joining so many other countries in their implementation of basic moral and ethical standards that it had for so long neglected. But alas, it seems that the ascension of Donald Trump to the White House has all but guaranteed a reversal to the dozens upon dozens of measures taken to ensure that the US continues to have a position of respect, admiration and civility among the global community. From overt misogyny to blatant racism, Donald Trump is an embodiment of the identity crisis that America seems to be suffering from of late. The same sort of internal dispositional difficulty that is demonstrated by I Am Michael’s Michael Glatze.
I Am Michael, based on the New York Times Magazine article “My Ex-Gay Friend,” tells the story of former gay activist Michael Glatze (James Franco) who renounces his homosexuality and instead begins working toward becoming a conservative Christian pastor. After having been editor of XY Magazine and a vocal supporter of gay rights, Glatze begins to have an identity crisis as to who he really is, triggered by his fears of not joining his parents in heaven as well as an unexplainable health scare. Throwing away his long-term relationship and abandoning his growingly successful startup magazine YGA (Young Gay America), Glatze is determined to save himself from God’s wrath and become a born-again Christian pastor. Justin Kelly’s I Am Michael is a powerfully poignant film that works not only as a traditional biopic but also as a touching examination of a man who is conflicted between his sexuality and his faith. After a health scare that beckons his mind to ponder whether he would join his Christian mother in heaven, Michael soon begins to existentially reflect on his life, legacy and potential afterlife.
We are not drawn into a good versus bad narrative archetype regarding Michael’s continuously twisting logic concerning his relationship with his homosexuality. Instead, Franco’s commanding performance as Michael Glatze forces the viewer to confront the dichotomy between a man who has lost control of his self-esteem or one that is reeling from a religious reawakening. Supplemented by the capable emotionality of Zachary Quinto and the sweetly innocent disposition of Emma Roberts, Kelly’s directorial debut is a fine work that does an excellent job of demonstrating the uncertainty that so many of us face, regardless of sexuality.
While pouring syrup on pancakes, a newfound tryst of Michael and his boyfriend’s points out the shape as being “a galaxy.” Michael corrects him, saying “actually, it’s a spiral. It’s the only symbol that means anything. It’s infinite. No beginning, no end.” This same sort of logic is superimposed onto Michael’s psychological state, wherein he believes that his life too is infinite, one that is poised to transition into the afterlife. And the fear of not having one with his parents is too much for the gay activist to bare, sending the young, talented and loving writer into a helix of panic attacks, outbursts and emotional vulnerabilities. Much like Michael’s own train of thoughts regarding his sense of being, there never seems to be a resting point as to what he truly believes, creating a realistic sense of what it means to be stuck between a rock and hard place—represented as having a religious background that conflicts with one’s gay identity.
But again, what makes I Am Michael a success is the fact that there is no apparent moral superiority that can be felt by the audience (save perhaps for fact that the real-life Glatze has written some truly ethically reprehensible articles, including a blog post entitled “Obama is Disgusting Because He’s Black”). Glatze is just as confused as he was when we first see him reeling from his existential crisis, never having found a point in which he felt comfortable. It is precisely the ambiguity, confusion and chaos of Glatze’s own vision of self-worth and identity that makes the story as palpable as it comes to be by the final act. Just as we are to believe that Glatze has found his new dispositional home—one that is seemingly grounded in his newfound identity and wellbeing, we are thrust back into the reality of the situation just in the last few seconds of the film. It is perhaps the most heartrending point of the movie that speaks to the reality of Glatze’s state of mind, one that is driven more by fear and isolation than anything else—a quality that seems to be all too apparent in the recent presidential election.
Perhaps just like Donald Trump’s moniker to “make America great again,” Michael believes that he too can make himself great again through his rigorous personal reinvention. Glatze thought he had found his new self—much like America had under the alt-right political movement with the election of Donald Trump—only to realize that the solace that he thought he had found in a new identity is one that does not live up to his personal expectations. Glatze’s newfound Buddhist lover Nico explains, “Michael, you’re confused, you’re very confused, and it’s at my expense.” It seems that America is also just as confused as Michael is in its identity. Here’s to hoping that it does not come at the American public’s expense as it had with Nico.
Check out the film for yourself come January 27.