Editor’s Note: Normally this week, Vanyaland Film Editor Nick Johnston would be down in Austin for South-By-Southwest’s film festival, catching as many premieres as he can in between tacos and fun walks down a crowded 6th Street. But like last year, SXSW 2022 is a virtual edition, so he’s at home like the rest of us. Luckily, he’s still watching all the films worth seeing, and reviewing them in our film section; keep it locked to our continuing coverage as the fest unfolds.
It’s weird to think that Patton Oswalt — one of the best comedians of the alt-comedy boom — could be considered an undervalued cinematic asset, but he is. There may be no better actor at portraying a kind of middle-class schlub who is compelled to do absolutely ridiculous shit for the sake of the love and affection that he feels he lacks, all while managing to preserve some amount of sympathy for his unlovable characters. One need only look at his work in Robert Siegel’s Big Fan or Jason Reitman’s Young Adult to be reminded of that, and it’s a shame that these projects only come up every so often for him. It is a gift, however, when one of these performances lands in festival line-ups or at your local indie theater, and I’m happy to say that James Morosini’s I Love My Dad is such a treat. A bizarro hybrid of Mrs. Doubtfire and World’s Greatest Dad, Morosini and Oswalt push the boundaries of good taste and scumbag comedy to their limits, and it’s a cringe-worthy joy to watch unfold.
Allegedly based on a true story (I have no idea if this is true but the film feels so goddamn outlandish that I both doubt the fuck out of it and absolutely buy it), I Love My Dad follows one such schlubby loser attempting to reconnect with his son through perhaps the worst means available to him. Chuck (Oswalt), an absent father with a bad habit of lying to his only son, Franklin (Morosini), is in a bit of a jam: he’s bad at his role in his kid’s life, but he cares about him. After moving across the country after his divorce, the only way he’s ever stayed in touch with his kid is through phone calls and Facebook. Franklin’s suffering as well — he’s an awkward kid, fresh out of a mental institution after a failed suicide attempt — and he’s determined to rid himself of his most problematic relationship, which means blocking Dad’s phone number and his social media accounts. Understandably, this upsets Chuck, who quickly figures out what’s happening, and is desperate for a way to reconnect with his son. A co-worker (Lil Rel Howery) makes an off-handed joke about how he made a fake profile on the site to keep track of an ex-girlfriend and, when paired with a chance encounter with a sweet waitress named Becca (Claudia Sulewski) at a local diner, Chuck gets an idea.
Yes, that’s right: this is a film about a dad who catfishes his kid, with Becca’s photos, in order to be close to him, and it goes to all of the uncomfortable places that you think it might. Morosini comes up with clever reasons as to why Franklin wouldn’t immediately block this person — chiefly, that he’s a lonely and awkward dude in need of something to buy into — and comes up with a relatively innovative way to depict the illusion of being catfished in an inherently cinematic way. Each conversation is dramatized, with Franklin’s idea of Becca popping up to have chats with him, and this has the nice effect of placing the emotions behind the texts front-and-center more than words on a screen could ever. All the while, Chuck is sweating bullets, happy to be close to his son but increasingly uncomfortable with the lengths that he’s having to go to in order to maintain his relationship. He’s happily offered plenty of offramps to end the lie where it stands, but Chuck comes to realize how much his son is depending on this as a source of hope in his life, and tries to steer the conversation in a positive direction. But the lies keep stacking up, and eventually, Franklin wants to come to visit the girl who, conveniently, lives in the same town as his dad, leading to a pretty cringe-inducing conclusion.
Keeping in tradition with his previous dramedic performances, Oswalt absolutely kills it here, giving Chuck just enough sympathy in each horrible situation that he finds himself in that we pity him rather than solely hate him, even as his actions grow grosser and grosser. There’s just something so relatable and pathetic about him that it’s hard to hate him, much like it was to hate Robin Williams’ beleaguered-and-grieving father in World’s Greatest Dad, trying to give his son a sort of meaning in death that the kid was too much of a sociopath to ever achieve in life. Likewise, it’s incredibly funny, with Oswalt’s sweaty skill at bullshitting and his bumpy attempts at manipulation proving to be where most of the film’s humor comes from, and it’s a fascinating and honest enough character portrait that it never quite stops being emotionally credulous even when it drifts into some of the most morally-fraught and utterly amusing territory not typically seen in the SXSW program outside of the Midnighters. I Love My Dad has all the makings of a cult classic, and I can’t wait to show this to totally unaware friends and watch them crawl out of their skins in the process. Make sure your bathtub is clean, too: they’re gonna probably want a shower when this is all said and done.