Actor James Franco in the red carpet for the presentation of 'I Am Michael' at the 65th Berlinale.
Pacific Press—LightRocket via Getty Images
January 26, 2017 6:52 AM EST

In the late 2000s, Michael Glatze–a former advocate for gay rights and co-founder of Young Gay America, a magazine for LGBT youth–announced that he had embraced Christianity and was no longer gay. He also denounced homosexuality as evil. Justin Kelly’s I Am Michael–adapted from a 2011 New York Times Magazine article by Benoit Denizet-Lewis–tells some version of Glatze’s story, to the extent that anyone can get at the spiritual truth of it.

James Franco plays Michael: when we first meet him, he’s an editor of XY, a San Francisco-based magazine for gay men. He and his live-in boyfriend, Bennett (played, with a perfect balance of charm and levelheadedness, by Zachary Quinto), enjoy what looks like a perfect relationship. It’s so perfect that they joyously invite a third party into it, Tyler–played by Charlie Carver, whose performance is at first boyishly breezy, only to become heartrending.

But Michael, suffering after having lost his mother, becomes obsessed with questions about life after death. He and Bennett drift apart. He dabbles with Mormonism and Buddhism before turning to evangelical Christianity, eventually becoming engaged to a sweet young woman (Emma Roberts) he meets at a Bible school. The old Michael counseled young people, “What God would punish you for finding love?” The reborn one announces on his blog, “I was a heterosexual person with a homosexual problem. I took care of that problem.” He urges others to do the same.

Kelly and his actors seem anxious not to judge Glatze, but they can’t downplay the cutting nature of his betrayal. (In real life, Glatze has since offered apologizes for any harm he might have caused and retreated from ex-gay activism.) Franco’s performance, particularly as he portrays the post-“conversion” Michael, is hard to read: the character drifts through the later scenes as if he’d been body-snatched. And, in some ways, he was.

When you become a spokesperson for any group, who really owns you in the end? I Am Michael suggests that there’s no solid answer to that question. But the damage you can do to someone else by demanding that they change is a sin that isn’t so easily forgiven.

This appears in the February 06, 2017 issue of TIME.

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