Following in the deranged footsteps of Bobcat Goldthwait’s “World’s Greatest Dad” — and making good on that lineage in all of the most cringe-inducing ways — James Morosini’s very funny but/and profoundly uncomfortable “I Love My Dad” is the kind of dark comedy that’s easier to describe than it is to watch. The premise couldn’t be simpler: A clinically depressed twentysomething named Franklin (played by the writer-director himself) emerges from his latest stint in a mental health facility with a new resolve to cut ties with his toxic fuck-up of a father, Chuck (Patton Oswalt). Upon discovering that his son has blocked him on social media, a desperate Chuck decides to catfish his own kid with the fake profile he creates around pictures of a beautiful waitress who works at his local diner (Claudia Sulewski). Hijinks ensue.
Well, “hijinks” might be an insufficient way of describing a scene in which a grown man furiously sexts with his own son… who’s jerking off on the toilet of the motel room they’re staying in together. But if that gag isn’t even the film’s most uneasy display of misplaced affection — let’s just say that Morosini takes his plot to its logical conclusion — it’s also true that “I Love My Dad” is only semi-devoted to shock value.
People who love to wince their way through comedies will find plenty to squirm about here, and yet it’s not like Chuck is a complete sicko. The film positions him more as a standard-issue deadbeat in an age when anyone can go full Mrs. Doubtfire with just a few clicks of a button (once upon a time you needed access to an industrial-strength girdle and the best makeup team in all of San Francisco to even try it). In fact, Morosini’s film opens by claiming that it’s based on his own father, and “I Love My Dad” is just level-headed enough to ring true. It may not resonate as anything deeper than a modern satire of the idea that father knows best, but it leans into its high-wire act with the fearlessness of a movie that knows just how fraught it can be to connect with anyone these days.
Chuck likes taking shortcuts. In a prologue that accurately sets the tone for the rest of the film to come, we see him gift Franklin a new dog as an apology for whatever he did (or didn’t show up for) this time — a missing dog whose owners are looking for it. He’s the kind of dad who’ll forget your birthday, leave 10 voicemails to say sorry, and then miss it again the next year. So when it comes time to catfish his son, Chuck picks the prettiest girl who happens to be in his line of sight at that moment (he’s not the most web-savvy guy in the world).
Luckily for Chuck, Franklin is a little slow. Morosini plays his character with a stunted innocence that emphasizes his vulnerability above his intellect, and generally makes it easier to go along with the plot. His brain seems to have been scooped out of his head along with whatever mental ailment had put him in the institution to begin with, so when a girl named Becca messages him out of the blue, it doesn’t take much for him to fall into “her” clutches. And he falls harder than Chuck ever expected. He just wanted to give the kid something to live for and worm back into his life in the process — he didn’t expect this would become a full-time grift.
If what happens from there is predictable in broad strokes, Morosini finds a number of unexpected ways to keep the perversity of it all intact. Allegedly drawing from his own experiences, or at least how they felt to him at the time (show us the receipts, James!), the writer-director peppers things up by staging Franklin’s text convos with Becca as if they were happening IRL. Becca functions like an invisible friend and/or a horny but distant possibility who’s being fed lines by the worst Cyrano of all time, and Sulewski’s elastic performance allows the gambit to work like a charm.
Oswalt, meanwhile, finds just the right level of sleaziness for his role; mixing ample amounts of “sad motherfucker” energy (to quote co-star Lil Rey Howery) with an endearing stink of desperation. There’s only one moment where Chuck does something that truly doesn’t make any sense, and while that beat (at the end of the aforementioned sexting scene) is a real doozy, it’s offset by a regular dreambeat of “I can’t believe they’re going there” guffaws. If only every scene had the sardonic edge that Rachel Dratch brings to hers, the “SNL” alum slaughtering her glorified cameo as Chuck’s witheringly horned up girlfriend who gets mixed up in all of this catfish mishegoss.
Her character suggests that “I Love My Dad” would have been more satisfying experience had it swerved away from decency and good taste even harder than it already does, especially since Morosini still underplays Chuck’s inevitable redemption (or at least the empathy-restoring explanation for why he’s such a terrible parent). All the same, there’s something painfully understandable about the way Chuck uses Becca to incept Franklin with notions of forgiveness. Every parent’s greatest fear is losing their child, and that loss — Morosini convincingly suggests — can be almost just as devastating when it happens while their child is still alive to see it. Or even worse, to choose it for themselves.
“I Love My Dad” premiered at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.