Photo: Brainstorm Media

James Franco catches a lot of flack for his dilettantism, zipping from project to project, trying his hand at directing, writing, criticism, academia, and whatever else he gathers under the umbrella of “performance art.” But it’s Franco’s mercuriality that makes him the ideal person to play Michael Glatze. A real-life activist who switched sides—from running LGBTQ advocacy publications to becoming an outspoken “ex-gay” Christian—Glatze has gone through so many changes that it takes a chameleonic artist to do his life justice. It’s not enough just to repeat all the contradictory things Glatze has said over the years. To tell his story right, an actor has to believe them. All of them.

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I Am Michael is based on Benoit Denizet-Lewis’ New York Times article “My Ex-Gay Friend,” which was written from the perspective of someone who worked closely with Glatze at XY magazine in San Francisco, and knew enough about what kind of person he was to see both the continuities and disconnects in what he’d become. As played by Franco in I Am Michael, Glatze is at every stage a person in search of an identity. Even as an essayist and editor for XY and Young Gay America, Glatze writes about how the LGBTQ community has alienated some queer youth by making outrageousness part of its brand. What he mostly seems to want for himself and for the young people he tries to help is to avoid being reduced to a stereotype—even if, ironically, he has to make broad assumptions about other people to set himself apart.

What’s unusual—and welcome—about I Am Michael is how much time it spends with Glatze both pre- and post-conversion. The change is hastened by a health scare, which leaves him worrying over the fate of his immortal soul. He turns to the Bible for solace and answers but doesn’t become a conservative overnight. The movie tracks his gradual evolution, as he eventually leaves his boyfriend (Zachary Quinto) and finds his way to seminary, where he falls for a fellow student (Emma Roberts). I Am Michael stops short of catching up with what Glatze’s been up to lately, as he’s reportedly abandoned some of his more extreme positions and apologized for being so antagonistic to so many. But the roots of those regrets are seen in some of the later scenes of this film, where Glatze squabbles with the administration of his college over their interpretation of scripture.

I Am Michael is the debut feature for writer-director Justin Kelly, and played at Sundance in 2015 before sitting on a shelf for two years. In the interim, Kelly’s second film, King Cobra, has come out, with Franco and Christian Slater playing gay porn producers feuding over a hot young star. Both of Kelly’s movies so far have shown the same strengths and weaknesses. He has an emotionally distant, observational approach, which makes the most outlandish behavior seem grounded and plausible, but which also makes moments of passion and confrontation come off a little flat.

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Still, Kelly’s non-sensationalistic take on a tricky subject helps explicate Glatze’s strange journey. There are few moments of outright melodrama in I Am Michael, and that lack of big moments leaves viewers to read between the lines when Glatze is rejected by a Buddhist center for his ex-gay blog posts, or when he reads through all the angry articles online about his new way of life. There’s a sense in which the rejection of others emboldens Glatze, convincing him that he’s right to think of the liberal gay lifestyle as dangerously cultish. But Franco never plays this character as hurt or vindictive. Right to the end, he’s earnestly seeking, determined not to be slapped with any label, and willing to risk being totally alone.