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I Love My Dad Takes Cringe-Com to New Depths

Photo Courtesy Magnolia Pictures

A deadbeat dad catfishes his newly-estranged suicidal son. Sound funny? Amazingly, that is weirder-than-life-but-true-nonetheless story behind the new comedy from writer-director-actor James Morosini, I Love My Dad. Elevated by excellent performances from the always-watchable Patton Oswalt and newcomer Claudia Sulewski, Morosini’s cringe comedy takes the subgenre to new depths, especially if you’ve never imagined the comic potential of a father-son makeout scene. And still, despite the cringe, I Love My Dad manages to express some heartfelt emotion.

Morosini plays a version of himself as Franklin, a young man whose recovery from deep depression has him now making changes to take charge of his life. Among those are a new commitment to group therapy and a momentous decision to block his father Chuck (Oswalt) from his social media and contacts list. Doing so, Franklin thinks, is a necessary first step towards personal autonomy. So far, so good.

Except that Chuck is one of those parents who acts before he thinks. Having been perpetually absent from every important moment in Franklin’s life, he thinks he can “make it up” by helicoptering about—stalking, practically—Franklin in his twenties. So when he finds himself blocked from Franklin’s social media accounts, he creates a guise to let him creep on his son, and that’s where local waitress Becca (YouTube personality/influencer Sulewski in her film debut) comes in. Without thinking through the consequences, Chuck lifts Becca’s #Gram-worthy online photos to create an imposter social media profile and befriend his son.

Sounds like a plan. What could possibly go wrong?

Nearly everything, of course. The more successful Chuck’s ruse, the more intimate faux-Becca and duped Franklin’s online conversations become. Chuck finds himself once again with the access to his son’s life he desired, but it doesn’t bring him any closer: whatever relationship they begin to re-establish is still carefully guarded, as Chuck’s ruse is so gross he dare not reveal it to anyone, not his ex-wife and Franklin’s mom Diane (Amy Landecker), his new office romance Erica (Rachel Dratch), his best friend Jimmy (Lil Rel Howery), and especially not to the actual real-life Becca whose identity he’s stolen.

But Chuck needs assistance—an accomplice, if you will—to aid and abet his ruse. Slowly, the fiction starts to unravel. As he enlists Erica to pretend to be the voice of faux-Becca, he risks her trust. And the real Becca is a victim of a crime that all too often ends in tragedy. That any of this is remotely funny is due in part to Morosini’s script, which adroitly mines the anonymity of sexting for a comic scene that involves copying-and-pasting sex talk to his son. Making faux-Becca appear real, speaking the words Chuck is composing, works as a clever visual conceit.

James Morosini as Franklin in I Love My Son.
James Morosini as Franklin in I Love My Dad. Photo: Courtesy Magnolia Pictures.

Were this cringey comedy all that I Love My Dad had to offer, it might border on the unwatchable. Morosini, a USC film school grad on his first full-budget feature, brings what he says is “based on” his own experience—his father indeed created a fake girlfriend account to get closer to him—to the script. It’s clear he has forgiven his own father and indeed loves him very much to have made this film. That alone may not make him the right actor for the part. At 32, he’s about a decade older than the character, and as much as he tries to shrug-shoulder, rumple-shirt, and tousle-hair his way through the film as a troubled young twentysomething, his performance is the film’s weakest.

As his faux-girlfriend and the real-life Becca, Sulewski, meanwhile, shines. Her social-media success and camera-friendly smile make her an ideal—that is, an idealized—internet girlfriend. But she’s equally as convincing as the coffee-shop waitress more than a little troubled when Chuck’s fiction finally crashes in on her real life. Sulewski has a bright career in front of her as a comic actress, and it’s interesting to see her YouTube career having prepared her for this new, yet not all that different, medium, where her gig is to glow with youth and optimism.

Claudia Sulewski as Becca with James Morosini as Franklin in I Love My Son.
Claudia Sulewski as Becca with James Morosini as Franklin in I Love My Son. Photo: Courtesy Magnolia Pictures.

It’s Oswalt, though, who truly elevates the film beyond its merely cringey escapades. The veteran character actor is no slouch when it comes to playing the forlorn nebbish. But for every dumb decision his character makes—and there are scores of them in I Love My Dad—somehow Oswalt makes it clear that this particular dad loves his son. It turns out that he’s just astonishingly, comically inept at actually expressing that love.

Had Morosini decided to write to “Ask Amy” instead of concocting a script, he would likely have been advised to double down on creating firewalls to keep his toxic dad out of his life. But a script he wrote—it was selected from 2,300 entries as the Grand Prize Winner of Screencraft’s Screenplay Competition—and in doing so, found a measure of empathy for the father who catfished him to try to earn his love.

It isn’t like I Love My Dad has much profound or new to say about catfishing, mental health, parenting, or forgiveness. Morosini’s script largely overlooks the impact of Chuck’s catfishing on the real Becca and makes him into a hero of sorts when it comes to Franklin’s mental health. But at least it has its heart in the right place, even when its cringe is at its heights—or, rather, at its depths.

Written by J Paul Johnson

J Paul Johnson is Publisher of Film Obsessive. A professor emeritus of film studies and an avid cinephile, collector, and curator, his interests range from classical Hollywood melodrama and genre films to world and independent cinemas and documentary.

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