Executive produced by Gus Van Sant, this is a brave movie for anyone in the US to write, direct or star in given the seemingly irreconcilable positions of openly and happily gay people on the one hand and the bigoted anti-gay sentiments of right-wing fundamentalism on the other. Its starting point is Benoit Denizet-Lewis’ fascinating New York Times magazine article entitled My ex-Gay Friend.
In the article the writer goes to visit his former colleague at San Francisco’s young gay men’s XY magazine Michael Glatze who is now studying at Bible school in Wyoming to become a pastor. The XY period is covered towards the start of the movie while the Bible school episode appears in its last third. In between Michael and partner Bennett (Zachary Quinto) try and build a life together which later becomes a ménage à trois with the addition of Tyler (Charlie Carver).
Michael fondly remembers his late, practising Christian mother who never forced her own faith upon her kids. He often visits her ashes buried at the roots of a tree in a park. When one night he’s rushed to hospital with debilitating heart palpitations; he fears his life may end at any time. He begins praying and reading the Bible in earnest, flirting with Mormonism and Buddhism before Bible school, where he falls for the conservative-raised Rebekah (Emma Roberts) but alienates the staff over his interpretation of Christianity.
The couple leave to set up their own church with him as pastor. In a final, extraordinary note he waits for his new parishioners to arrive on Sunday morning: is he about to experience another heart palpitation episode?
Franco is terrific as the gay man (or is he?) trying to come to terms with queer theory, his own identity and questions about his place in the universe traversing the labyrinth of different societal sub-groups. Quinto lends strong support as the partner who gets hurt and lashes out when Michael feels he can no longer live as a gay man, only to renew their friendship in later years.
Further unsettling contrary narratives underpin all this besides the two obvious ones. Cory (Devon Graye) is an openly gay Christian who reconciles faith and sexuality. The “straight” Michael’s rejection of the dominant ideas encountered at Bible school hint at different Christian viewpoints from that institution’s dominant, fundamentalist model.
Many people have struggled and continue to struggle with their own sense of religious and/or sexual identity, and so does this film. Its knife-edge ending neatly avoids the trap of being prescriptive and telling people that they should live their lives in any one particular, given way. It certainly understands a great deal about both sexual identity and religion and provides much food-for-thought afterwards. Its refusal to easily package itself for one target audience or another may explain why it didn’t make it to UK cinemas, but happily it can now be found on DVD.
I Am Michael is out in the UK on DVD in first week of April. It’s also available for online streaming on BFI player – just click here for more information. And you can view the movie trailer right here: