To watch James Franco go from radiant, intellectually curious gay activist to brooding anti-homosexual Christian in "I Am Michael" is a physical, facial and interior transformation worth your ticket/streaming price alone.
It's fascinating, like a winged creature of color and movement trying a reverse metamorphosis, back into a shell represented by conservatively cut hair, crisp dress shirts and stony eyes. It's a different identity, that's for sure. But is this person really the "true self" his character claims to care so much about finding?
Director Justin Kelly's first feature — although the second to get released (his sophomore movie "King Cobra," also starring Franco, arrived last year) — is a soberly stylish, impressively non-judgmental portrait of a controversial real-life case of transformation. Inspired by a 2011 New York Times article "My Ex-Gay Friend," it tells the true story of Michael Glatze (Franco), who at the turn of the millennium is a dyed-blond dynamo with a loving partner named Bennett (Zachary Quinto) and a fiery sense of purpose when it came to helping troubled gay youth come out.
After the pair move from San Francisco to sleepy Halifax, Nova Scotia, for Bennett's work, Michael's restlessness leads him to pick up a young man (Charlie Carver) in a bar, but even that merrily morphs into a live-in threesome that reignites Michael's and Bennett's bond. Newly energized, Michael starts a magazine called Young Gay America, becomes a sought-after speaker and travels the country documenting the often-harrowing stories of LGBT youth for a movie eventually called "Jim in Bold."
That road trip, however, puts him in contact with a strain of gay youth — Christian-raised, shunned, but still hopeful — that triggers nagging doubts (and pained looks skyward), followed by new thinking about a religion he'd long seen as an intolerant enemy.
Suppressed emotions about missing his deceased parents surface as an enveloping fear of death, and a desire to see them again. After a heart-palpitation health scare — a panic attack Michael interprets as a sign from God — his Bible switches from research tool to belief-system guidebook.
As Bennett watches (and Quinto depicts with a penetrating sadness), Michael separates entirely from him and homosexuality, publicizing his conversion on his blog with denigrating comments about gays that make him an Internet pariah for some, a champion to others. For Michael, who never liked labels when he was excitedly spouting queer theory, identity has turned into a me-first, all-in proposition, as if the only redemption for being lost and searching is to take sides when you finally emerge.
"I Am Michael" is difficult material, for sure. It has a sleek, dour vibe, like a thriller about a heart in distress. (A few percussively tense sound cues hint as much.) The pitfalls are obvious, but Franco, an actor it's easy to forget can produce some resonant work, is up to the task of carrying a fraught spiritual trek without pegging Michael as a villain, a sap or a hero.
Meanwhile Kelly, who is credited with Stacey Miller for the screenplay, is shrewd enough to keep the movie from being a dramatized op-ed piece about betrayal, instead making roiling uncertainty, loneliness and melancholy the marquee emotions.
In later scenes, we see Michael in Bible school, studying to be a pastor, and courting a friendly Christian woman (Emma Roberts). There's a calmness on display, but it's antiseptic. A spark is missing and, as Michael awaits his first day leading a congregation, we get a clever hint that his journey is far from over. It leaves you feeling the title of the movie is hardly a statement, and more like a defensive avowal from someone trapped by impossibly high standards of introspection.
'I Am Michael'
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica; also on VOD