As religion and modernity continue to face off in the 21st century, more and more films and writings are questioning the sway religion continues to have on our lives. While the status of women, the environment, poverty and equal rights across the board are among the many issues that come to mind, one of the most contentious issues facing religious belief has been sexual orientation. No matter the strides made in social development and evolution, the debate of religion and its treatment of the non-normative continues to be had (and to baffle me). There are milder versions of religious intolerance, but for the most part religion and all of its manifestations tend to abhor the very idea of any alternate, non-normative sexual orientation (and in a larger related umbrella, alternate sexuality, gender expression etc.).
I am Michael, a film starring the contemporary champion of gender fluidity in the arts James Franco, is directed by Justin Kelley. The film decides to turn this engagement completely on its head. Well, not wholly, but quite a bit. Taking from the claims of cured homosexuals/gays having converted to becoming straight again, this film begins with the life of a gay couple in San Francisco: gay activist Michael Glatze played by Franco and his long-term partner Bennett, played by Zachary Quinto. While Michael is deeply involved in the heart of the gay activist movement, Bennett is not far behind. Michael is a well-known public speaker and community activist, who has made activism for LGBTQ people an integral part of his life. He plays this stereotypical gay male in the 90s: activism, partying, some outreach, coupled with youth and its pleasures.
Then enters a life altering event, when Bennett accepts a job in Halifax and they decide to move their lives at a moment’s notice. This change of pace, change of everything they were accustomed to, comes with a third person Tyler (played by Charlie Carver) who is brought into the relationship.
The film is not high on production, or on nuanced narrative, but it goes to the heart of the debate. As Michael struggles to come to terms with a slower way of life and the different pace of a small town, he begins to exhibit some physical signs of discomfort, in his chest and his breathing. Essentially, he is sent away from doctors and hospitals identified as merely being anxious. Obviously, the non-identification of his existential ailment can’t be wished away as innocuous. As he dwells and obsesses over what is wrong with him and refuses to believe anyone who says otherwise (also fed by it being a probable genetic disposition to heart disease), he turns to an unlikely solution. Finally, it’s when he begins to take refuge in prayer that his physical symptoms dissipate. He realizes why this has happened and he must seek repentance for the immoral path he has been on all these years. Bennett tries to reason with him a little bit, attempting to identify the problem rooted in their relationship rather than something external, but it’s already too late.
This is when the story turns and Michael decides to quit his life with his partner and heads to bible school. What follows is a roller-coaster of events following each other, as he meets a girl who responds to his interest. He is forced to come clean to her, promising to having rid himself of everything immoral. Her acceptance and love for him help him take the plunge towards a life in the service of God, while all this time he continues to flirt with ideas of being with men and a sporadic fling is always wished away as being just that.
The film lacks analytical and artistic depth, yet it perfectly depicts in simple and plain terms religion’s appropriation of morality and its continued exertion of control. The fact that Michael has the choice to ‘rid’ himself of his gayness, offered by religion, is at the heart of this film’s battle. With the new love of his life fully devoted to him, Michael sets on the path of working in his own parish, with the gay demon still sneaking up on him.
James Franco does a stellar job as Michael, both playing the gay activist and then the conflicted man. He carries the film well and plays both parts to perfection.
On a deeper level, I am Michael is aimed to speak to real life conflicts of people who continue to be burdened by religion. It’s about the emotional trauma that people live with every single day; both inside and outside the confines of religion. And at the risk of sounding anti-religious, I would only say that religion and faith is not about confining people or shaming them for who they are. If there is a sense of faith or a god one believes in, then it is meant to inspire and push us to evolve to being better humans towards each other. I AM MICHAEL points the finger in that direction.
I Am Michael is available on iTunes and will be out on a limited release in theatres.