James Morosini’s I Love My Dad, which won both the audience and Grand Jury Award at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival, is a masterclass in cringe comedy. Morosini stars as Franklin, a troubled young man fresh off a suicide attempt. His father, Chuck, played with an incautious tenacity by Patton Oswalt, has been desperately trying to get a hold of him. We are first introduced to Chuck via a series of pathetic voice messages to his son. Chuck is a deadbeat. He might mean well, but the man seems to lack even the most basic skills of parenting. Rule numero uno: show up. Establishing his boundaries, Franklin blocks his father across the social media board. And that’s when the fun (a relative term) begins.
Totally misunderstanding an anecdote told to him by a coworker (played by Lil Rel Howery), Chuck creates a new profile under the name Becca, featuring photos of a rather attractive local waitress. Franklin accepts Becca’s friendship request. They hit it off, of course, first with some playful, low-level flirting. These scenes are staged with Becca (Claudia Sulewski) in the room with Franklin. While the object of his affection may share the screen with his son, Chuck looms over the proceedings like a jittery god, typing words that would induce nausea in any sane parent. Soon, the back-and-forth turns dirty. Dug in deep, Chuck enlists the help of his girlfriend Erica (Rachel Dratch). Turns out Erica can sext. I warned you about the cringe factor.
At the halfway point, I Love My Dad turns into a road comedy, with Chuck driving Franklin to meet Becca. There are a few twists and turns along the way, which I wouldn’t think to spoil here. If what I have described so far sounds intriguing, then the rest of the movie won’t be a let down.
Oswalt turns in an utterly fearless performance as father Chuck. The comic has excelled in dramatic performances in the past (Big Fan, Young Adult), but here he seems totally transformed — his body slumped from the weight of guilt he’s been carrying on his shoulders. Chuck’s narcissism has become a crystalized diamond. His only saving grace is that deep down, below the toxic pool of self-absorption, he’s a father who loves his son. It’s quite possibly the only thing he ever says that he truly means.
I Love My Dad (in theaters Aug. 5 and on digital Aug. 12) is based on a real-life (or digital life?) event. Morosini’s father really did catfish him. This element of authenticity helps the movie immensely. Every move that Chuck makes, no matter how buffoonish, feels like a logical move made by a man-child who plays too many video games. And when the inevitable reveal hits Franklin square in the face, what could have come across as grotesque, becomes one of the more touching father-son bonding scenes in movies since 2010’s A Serbian Film. Cringy, but touching.
SPIN spoke with both Morosini and Oswalt over video conferencing about the real-life inspiration for the movie and the enjoyment of an audience’s uncomfortableness.
SPIN: Gentlemen, congratulations, you made me thoroughly uncomfortable for 96 minutes. James, I have to start the conversation about this bit of trivia that follows the movie wherever it goes: Did your father really catfish you?
James Morosini: Yes, my dad really catfished me.
Wild. I think Patton and I are both lucky to be of an age where our parents didn’t have access to social media. My father thinks Hulu is a planet. What were the circumstances of his catfishing?
JM: My dad and I got into a big fight and I blocked him on social media. I was going through a tough time and he was worried about me, but I wouldn’t talk to him about anything. One day I came home and this really pretty girl had sent me a friend request, and had all the same interests as me. She seemed really awesome and I started feeling better about myself. Then I found out it was my dad. He created the account. This story was born from that and that’s the movie you saw.
When watching the movie, the old saying “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” kept coming to mind because Chuck is not a great dad, but he is trying. He just doesn’t know how to try.
Patton Oswalt: Chuck has that fatal quality a lot of us have, where you go, “but my intentions were good. I want to do good. Don’t I get credit for that?” That’s how delusional he’s made himself. He has to have that level of delusion just to get out of bed in the morning and not kill himself. It is a defense mechanism, but it’s just so tragic to watch.
There are rabbit holes into rabbit holes in this movie. There’s the social media part of it, but Chuck keeps dragging people from real life into his mess.
PO: Oh, God, yeah.
JM: What was interesting to me about the story, and why I wanted to turn it into a movie, was this idea of each of us working with a very limited set of tools. We all want to be close to the people in our lives, but some of us never learned how to properly do that. I wanted to see if we could get an audience on board with this person doing the wrong things for the right reason. Because he loves his son. But it begs the question: How far would you go to make sure somebody you loved was OK?
Right. Has your dad seen the movie?
JM: We watched it together at SXSW. I was really nervous for him to see the movie. He was really nervous to see the movie.
He was cracking up the whole movie.
The character Patton plays is very different from my dad, which I made clear to him a few times. At one point during the movie, he leaned over to me and said, “I really like this movie.” He has a really good sense of humor.
JM: There’s home video footage at the end of the movie, which he shot. From a production standpoint, we took a lot of inspiration from what his apartment used to look like: album covers, furniture, etc. Chuck’s desk is from my dad’s office. So it was emotional for him to watch.
Divorced dad pad is an aesthetic: lots of exercise equipment in the living room that’s gone unused and thrift store couches. Patton, I’m gonna to assume you’re a good dad.
PO: I hope I’m a good dad! I’m not one of these dads trying to get away from their kids. I’ve known some dads who would say to me, “You’re gonna want to get away from your kids. When they’re older and out of the house, you’ll be really happy.” Maybe you shouldn’t be having kids if you wanna get away from them.
How did you prepare to play such a messy father?
PO: The main thing that helped was James wrote a great script that made it easier to get into this character. Also, I had some access to other materials that James was very gracious enough to let me read. Basically, this is someone who is constantly trying to solve problems he’s the cause of.
But as an actor, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you quite this way. This is a very vulnerable performance, both emotionally and physically. Your posture is slumped and there’s a weariness to you that is pretty heavy. Was it difficult inhabiting the mind of such a needy being?
PO: Sometimes it was. But again, it all comes back to James and his script. James helped me get to those very unpleasant places I needed to be.
JM: Patton and I spent a lot of time together talking about the script and what it both means to us. It shows in the performance. The scene outside the laser tag, I saw you give a performance that made it hard for me to direct. It was so visceral and you were so connected to the story. It was some of the best acting I’ve seen.
PO: That was a really hard scene to shoot. It took me really deep.
The fake sexting scene between father and son…
PO: Such a fun scene to watch with an audience. That was one of my favorite movie-going experiences ever.
It was so uncomfortable that I think it’s up there with the scene in Swingers and the answering machine. Scenes I just have to skip over. And I mean that as a compliment. What was the audience’s reaction?
JM: A weird blend of people laughing at a comedy and others screaming like a horror movie. It was a very loud audience reaction.
PO: You can find on Youtube a clip from 1978, somebody brought a video camera into a screening of Halloween, where the audience is recoiling even during the quieter scenes. During our sexting scene, yes there were loud reactions, but also you can feel from people some internal imploding. That’s a real moment. They were as much in that scene as they were watching.
I have to ask this one: Normally you film the sex scenes early in case any actor quits mid-shoot. So, when in the schedule was the kiss between your two characters?
JM: Early, like day two or three.
PO: I was in a marketplace, eating noodles and they went, “We need you in here for the shot. Do you want a breath mint?” I had forgotten that was what was planned. I had been eating garlic noodles and thought, “My breath must be terrible right now.” Was it, James?
JM: It was delicious!