I Am Michael ***
Starring: James Franco, Zachary Quinto, Emma Roberts, Charlie Carver
Director: Justin Kelly
Long-time Queer ally James Franco has been at it again. It says a lot that the most outspoken voice in Hollywood on LGBT issues is a straight man, but as usual, Franco has plunged head-first into a Queer story in I Am Michael, his second collaboration with director Justin Kelly after last year's King Cobra. If we're being pedantic, this is actually his first as it was made before the true-life gay porn thriller, but it has only now surfaced in UK, released on DVD and to download.
Following the true story of Michael Krichte, I Am Michael charts the 180 degree turnaround of the former Gay Rights Activist, who would later become a Christian pastor, claiming to have been "cured". Initially one of the strongest voices supporting LGBT youth in America, Michael (Franco) is in a loving and stable (albeit open) relationship with Bennett (Quinto). The pair meet Tyler (Carver), who they welcome into their bed and their relationship, before travelling the country together shooting a documentary about young gay people. But following a health scare during which Michael is convinced he will die, he increasingly becomes fixated on the afterlife, uneasy with reconciling his newfound faith with his sexuality.
Whomever was going to take on this story was always going to be in with a challenge, because although the story is a fascinating one, it follows a character along a non-traditional path, gradually closing himself off instead of the more relatable story of it being the other way around. For a LGBT audience, this is difficult to understand and unfortunately, it never really gets under the skin to tell us why or how he actually does it. Nor does it pass any judgement on his "conversion", seemingly too scared of the reaction from a Christian audience to take any firm stance on it. But in reality, it doesn't support the LGBT corner OR the Christian. Instead, it lurks somewhere in the middle, shiftily dipping toes in both ponds without committing either way.
Faith is a difficult subject to explore on film. Resisting the urge to physicalise his internal battle, we instead see Michael's turmoil through a series of close-ups on his face, during which Franco goes through the motions of his character's crisis of conscience. Either Franco isn't a strong enough actor, or Kelly left the camera running too long, but these lingering moments lack the emotional punch that they're clearly intended to have, feeling less like Nicole Kidman's monumental close-up in Birth and more like Lindsay Lohan's in I Know Who Killed Me.
Just as in King Cobra, you can't fault Kelly's reproduction of LGBT culture on-screen. Where the former showed us the glamour (or lack thereof) of gay porn, this gives us early 00s gay publications, LGBT Youth groups and the full force of Christian bigotry. But just as King Cobra struggled to find any real story in what promised to be something both explosive and scandalous, so too does I Am Michael fail to really deliver. It feels like an attempt at a character-study, but only skims the surface of Michael Krichte's controversial decision. Without knowing his story beforehand, it also feels like it's heading toward a sensationalist ending as well... but *spoiler* nothing really happens. If the first slow-burning hour feels like it's laying the groundwork for something tense and exciting later, then the next forty minutes will come as a sore disappointment.
Zachary Quinto is fine in support, but is given very little to do except looked concerned now and then. Charlie Carver does a great job of being present and looking hot. Meanwhile, Emma Roberts, cast as Krichte's Christian girlfriend, is doe-eyed and simple in a wasted part that could easily have explored how a Christian woman might have reacted to her husband's "ex-gay" past. But whether it's attempting to stay too closely to its source material, or if nobody actually thought about writing a climax to it, the film sputters, stumbles and peters into nothingness. Together, Franco and Kelly will one day make that truly great Queer movie that they so clearly want to make. But they're not quite there just yet.
OUT NOW ON DVD AND TO DOWNLOAD.