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I Love My Dad review: Patton Oswalt in a catfish cringe comedy

“The following actually happened,” insists the epigraph of I Love My Dad. For laughs and good measure, more words follow: “My dad asked me to tell you it didn’t.” Veracity is one major hook of this tenderly awkward cringe comedy from writer-director-star James Morosini, which tells a true story of such deeply misguided, debatably well-meaning parental deception that it being true only compounds the queasy fascination. Of course, the promise that everything you’re seeing is based on real events is also an invisible shield, isn’t it? No matter how much fictionalizing has taken place, stamping a story as true helps deflect any potential complaints about elements that ring false or might otherwise inspire skepticism. And I Love My Dad has a few of those.

To hear Morosini tell it, he was 19 years old when he fell for an elaborate internet ruse. The culprit: his father, dubbed Chuck here and played by the stand-up comic Patton Oswalt. At the start of the film, Franklin (Morosini as a younger version of himself) has grown so fed up with Chuck’s lies and excuses and general deadbeat inability to be where he promises he’ll be that he’s completely cut his divorced dad out of his life, blocking all methods of phone and social media contact.

Chuck, a middle-aged office drone who now lives in another state, panics at the thought that he might finally have used up all his second chances. And so in his desperation, he does something very stupid: He essentially clones the Facebook page of Becca (Claudia Sulewski), a waitress at his local diner, and sends a friend request to his son, masquerading as a pretty young stranger to regain a window into his life. Unfortunately, Franklin strikes up a conversation, and the lie quickly spirals out of control. Before he knows it, Chuck is full-on catfishing his own smitten boy, who falls hard for “Becca,” completely unaware of who he’s really flirting with on his cell.

James Morosini and Claudia Sulewski flirt.

Morosini, to his credit, shows little reluctance to bask in the exquisite discomfort of this scenario. Perhaps needless to say, the looming threat of sexting eventually rears its head, and the scandalizing centerpiece sequence built around it — a miniature gross-out comedy of sorts, unfolding on two sides of a hotel bathroom — aims for both shock and compassion. That I Love My Dad racked up audience awards at a couple of film festivals suggests that Morosini has threaded that needle for audiences and inspired both.

His savviest stylistic choice is plunking Sulewski’s Becca into the frame with him during their text exchanges, visualizing their conversations as irl hangs. This doesn’t just allow Morosini to ditch the uncinematic image of two people typing messages into their devices. It also allows him to present the imaginary version of Becca that Chuck is offering as a shifting illusion. At all times, we see Franklin’s idealized fantasy of the woman he thinks he’s talking to, even as we’re thinking about the over-his-head fibber behind her, throwing his own words into someone else’s mouth like a virtual ventriloquist.

Oswalt, in maybe his best big-screen performance since Big Fan, offers a layered depiction of fatherly love madly misdirected into a train-wreck grift. He never lets us forget that Chuck’s subterfuge is a careless betrayal that can’t end well. (That he keeps having “Becca” nudge Franklin towards forgiving him reveals some manipulative calculation behind a bumbling scheme that gets too big to fail.) Yet Oswalt also keeps Chuck’s motivation in focus, an emotional beacon: He’s just a foolhardy father terrified of losing his son. The sympathy the actor elicits for a character that arguably doesn’t deserve it compensates for Morosini’s slightly shakier turn in the lead, a role he’s a little old to occupy in his early ‘30s. (Thankfully, it’s not a grotesque, Dear Evan Hansen-level stretch.)

James Morosini checks his Facebook friend requests.

So is it churlish to complain that the script hinges a bit too much on its characters making very stupid decisions? Franklin at times comes across as the most gullible teenager in America, only briefly stopping to question why he’s the lone Facebook friend of this total stranger who followed him out of the blue, refuses to video chat with him, and coincidentally works right near his father. (If all of that’s true to life, Morosini clearly needed a wake-up call from the Catfish boys.) Chuck, meanwhile, proves incredibly sloppy in covering his tracks; the film’s third act hinges on a screwup so conveniently huge that it beggars belief. Again, this is behavior we can only accept because it’s supposedly steeped in fact.

Then again, maybe the lapses in sense are just some kind of unspoken pact, forged between a son pathologically incapable of seeing the truth that’s right in front of him and a father pathologically determined to “accidentally” reveal that truth. The deeper, weirder implication of I Love My Dad is that Chuck finds a roundabout way to finally provide his son some emotional support. That’s what Franklin is really responding to in his faux-romance with Becca: The unconscious recognition of his dad on the other end of the line, finally being there for him.

Nonetheless, there’s something a little too tidy about I Love My Dad. It would benefit from a thornier upshot, one not so easy to read as a magnanimous tribute to the very man whose big lie inspired the film. Is poetic license to blame for the neatness of the ending? Or should Morosini have in fact exercised some of that to give faithfully replicated events a little more edge? Either way, if you buy that this is the full emotional truth of the truly bizarre experience he’s dramatizing, then wow, do we have a bridge on Facebook to sell you.

I Love My Dad opens in select theaters on August 5 and hits streaming digital rental services on August 12. For more of A.A. Dowd’s writing, please visit his Authory page.

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