This review originally ran as part of Paste’s SXSW 2022 coverage
If you’ve ever found yourself on the prowl for the most cringeworthy film premise of all time, look no further. Written and directed by James Morosini, and allegedly inspired by his own relationship with his father, I Love My Dad follows Franklin (Morosini), a teenager struggling with depression and anxiety in the wake of a recent suicide attempt. In an attempt to cope with his fragile mental health, Franklin blocks his absent, narcissistic father Chuck (Patton Oswalt) on social media. Unable to stomach not being able to check in on his son, Chuck panics, and at the misguided advice of his coworker (Lil Rey Howery), decides that the best course of action is to catfish his son, because, well, of course it is. And who better to impersonate than Becca (Claudia Sulewski), a waitress Chuck knows in real life? It’s not like that could possibly backfire in any way.
Chuck creates a profile for Becca and friends Franklin, who, in his lonely and vulnerable state, eagerly takes the bait and falls head-over-heels for dad-Becca. How can this premise be anything that doesn’t teeter on the incestuous? Well, the short answer is…it can’t. The more Chuck realizes that he can reconnect with his son via “Becca,” the more he is inclined to lean into the subterfuge, until he is frantically sexting with Franklin while they share a hotel room.
It is not I Love My Dad’s responsibility—or that of any film, for that matter—to be palatable or morally pure. The problem with I Love My Dad, though, is that it is deeply unappetizing, but can’t decide to what end. The film pushes itself to extremes like a broad and black comedy would, but isn’t quite enough of one to come across as anything but cruel.
A great deal of this tonal confusion can be attributed to Franklin. The first time we meet him, he is exiting a stint at a rehabilitation center for the shaky status of his mental health. Presumably, Franklin was written this way both to provide Chuck with enough desperate incentive to get back into his son’s life at whatever cost and then, once Chuck-Becca establishes their relationship with him, up the stakes for the poor boy not finding out the dark truth. The issue is, while watching I Love My Dad, it’s virtually impossible to envision a scenario in which the film doesn’t end with a deeply depressed person getting his heart broken. Morosini plays Franklin with such an awkward, morose vulnerability, too, that it makes his situation all the more tragic.
This wouldn’t be a problem if I Love My Dad wasn’t framed as a comedy, but it is. It’s hard not to take a film peppered with scenes of a boy and his father making out and talking dirty to each other as one. And, credit where credit is due, these moments are undeniably funny. Oswalt is hilariously deadpan as usual, giving Chuck a sharp, sleazy edge and coming off just desperate enough to justify his well-intentioned yet terribly, terribly executed plan. Perhaps the funniest part of I Love My Dad, though, is Rachel Dratch as Chuck’s foul-mouthed, relentlessly horny girlfriend. Each moment spent with her (and there are far too few) make me wish Morosini had either removed all the glumness from the film and turned it into a full-on sex-comedy, or simply foregone playing it for laughs altogether.
Indeed, these moments of humor work well on their own, but end up obfuscating the film’s central tone. The way that Morosini stages the text exchanges between Chuck-Becca and Franklin does the same thing. Instead of simply showing text bubbles—which would have gotten quite old given how much time is spent with the two virtually chatting—we see Franklin and Becca talking in real life, as Franklin imagines it. This saves the film from stale visual repetition, while also giving the sweet Sulewski a chance to shine. But every now and then, Becca is replaced by Chuck and when Morosini sets an entire sex scene this way while they are sexting, it becomes clear that this device exists primarily for laughs.
It is clear that Morosini is a gifted writer. His script is daring and to-the-point with a strong and original conceit that bursts as a short, snappy piñata filled with shocking, sad, sweet, poignant, funny and distasteful. I just wish its stuffings clashed less.
Director: James Morosini
Writers: James Morosini
Stars: Patton Oswalt, James Morosini, Claudia Sulewski, Rachel Dratch, Ricky Velez, Lil Rel Howery, Amy Landecker
Release Date: March 11, 2022 (SXSW)
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.