In I Love My Dad, the father-son petting session is just the beginning
In the pantheon of cinematic bad dads, there will always be a place for Chuck (Patton Oswalt), the lying shitty mess of an absent parent in writer/director James Morosini’s film. I love my father, a film both modest in its presentation and epic in its cringe. Chuck is a fast-talking loser with a bottomless pit of flimsy excuses for why he’s not there for his long-frustrated son, Franklin (Morosini). So when Franklin is released from a mental health facility after attempting suicide, his healing process includes severing all ties with his toxic father. The desperate Chuck reacts like any horrible father would: by harassing Franklin with a fake Facebook profile using photos of an attractive young waitress named Becca (Claudia Silewski) at the local restaurant. After a depressed Franklin accepts Becca’s friend request, he falls in love with his online-only “girlfriend”, forcing Chuck to go to great lengths to continue the ruse.
Morosini, in only his second feature film as a director (after 2018 Trio) insists on pushing this idea as far as it can go, as if testing its own commitment to its central premise and our ability to digest the outcome. Some moments will test the mettle of the most avid moviegoer, including a scene where Franklin masturbates on the toilet to racy texts he thinks were sent by Becca but were actually sent by his dad in the next room. Morosini, however, is smart enough to know that simply disgusting us for 95 minutes is not a movie. So he tries to make his film dramatically believable. This proves more difficult, as he has nothing new or insightful to say about father-son relationships or the pernicious possibilities of social media. But managing to push the squirm-inducing boundaries while having us root for a reprehensible father becomes its own kind of twisted achievement.
Right off the bat, Morosini proves he’s not afraid to take risks even though he didn’t think through how each individual risk would affect the whole. Placing the once-suicidal Franklin in such a dangerously fragile state is overkill and only makes Chuck’s deception on Facebook painfully cruel. Morosini undermines this to some degree by playing the role of Franklin as though he’s under a staggering cloud of emotional vulnerability that makes it more plausible that he’s falling into his father’s trap.
There are, of course, less silly ways for Chuck to reconnect with Franklin. But Chuck is the kind of misguided fool who would reject the best solution in favor of the bad solution that comes to mind at that exact moment. So inspired by a casual anecdote from a co-worker (Lil Rel Howery, a hilariously deadpan voice of reason), he grabs his own son. Despite imaginary Becca’s relatively sparse Facebook profile, Franklin accepts her friend request. At first, Chuck earns family laughs as he struggles to write lyrics that sound like they’re from a woman half his age. As their text relationship heats up, Chuck has to tap dance around Franklin’s desire to talk and video chat with his “girlfriend.” Eventually and reluctantly, he agrees to drive Franklin to Maine to meet Becca, bringing us one step closer to the inevitable moment when his doomed plan finally implodes.
Sometimes the mind drifts to what the Farrelly brothers, Seth MacFarlane or Matt Stone and Trey Parker or would have done with a story that seems to beg for a more outrageous or wacky approach. Morosini’s style is purely functional with very little pressure or polish. But that actually works in the film’s favor. Although the film is deeply uncomfortable in places, with social media-enabled incest and all, Morosini doesn’t rub his nose at it, and humiliating his characters isn’t his goal. He also finds clever ways to dramatize what it’s essentially like two people continuously tapping on their phones. When Franklin and “Becca” are texting, she’s physically in the scene and interacting with him, reading Chuck’s texts aloud with warmth, joy, earnestness, or, for a cute moment, saying every typo. Not only does it deftly overcome a storytelling challenge, but it also shows how a lost and lonely person can create a strong relationship based on texting alone. The creep factor comes into play later when Chuck is forced to sext Franklin lest he start to look suspicious. In a frenetic, well-acted scene, Chuck copies and pastes the R-rated texts he receives from his girlfriend (a funny Rachel Dratch) and sends them directly to Franklin.
If cringing the audience was everything I love my father had to offer, it would be an unpleasant and forgettable stunt. Morosini claims the film is based on an incident that actually happened between him and his father, so there was an opportunity to pay an authentic tribute to the rocky family relationships. He gives it the occasional shot but he’s not insightful enough to go beyond the basics. Oswalt, in a career best performance, easily makes up for that shortfall. And that’s no small feat. Chuck, whose pronounced underbite betrays a clenched-tooth anger at the trouble he’s brought on only himself, is a reprehensible sad bag crushed by the weight of his lies. Miraculously, Oswalt, who proved in Big fan it has the chops to darken, provides enough daylight that we give Chuck credit for having a genuine desire to be closer to his son.
I love my father is about a unique, modern breach of trust that bad parenting has made inevitable and social media has made possible. Chuck and Franklin use technology misguidedly, but their hearts are in the right place, which matters a lot when you’re forced to watch a father kiss his son. Morosini’s gentle directorial approach makes the film’s ominous elements less muted and he allows us to care and understand Chuck despite our revulsion. If we’re ultimately not sure what Morosini is trying to make, that’s okay. Consider ourselves honored, if slightly uncomfortable, guests at Morosini’s groundbreaking therapy session.