Patton Oswalt in ‘I Love My Dad’: Film Review | SXSW 2022

The actor co-stars with James Morosini in the latter’s comic feature mining his own uncomfortable past.

When the documentary Catfish premiered at Sundance a dozen years ago, it was hard to foresee how an exotic kind of internet deception would grow so commonplace that the film’s title would become a household word. We all should have seen that coming, of course; and there’s even a strange, sad logic to the real-life catfishing incident that inspired James Morosini’s sophomore film I Love My Dad: When a son cuts off all contact with his father, the rejected dad invents a fake Facebook account to try to keep tabs on him.

Only someone as deluded as Patton Oswalt’s Chuck, though, could fail to see how using the name and photos of a beautiful young woman would create huge problems for the lonely, recently suicidal son he hopes to help. Gently funny and much more forgiving than viewers might expect, the picture plays to Oswalt’s strengths and may resonate uncomfortably for parents worried about protecting their digital-native children without suffocating them or, worse, creating entirely new problems.

I Love My Dad

The Bottom Line

A surprisingly gentle take on a potentially explosive premise.

Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Narrative Feature Competition)

Cast: Patton Oswalt, James Morosini, Claudia Sulewski, Rachel Dratch, Ricky Velez, Lil Rel Howery, Amy Landecker

Director-Screenwriter: James Morosini

1 hour 30 minutes

Morosini’s character, Franklin, is just leaving a mental health facility as the story begins. He wanted to kill himself not long ago, and his mother, Diane (Amy Landecker), hopes to steer him away from anything that might exacerbate his despair. She knows she’s alone in this: Chuck, who sees himself as a loving father, lives a few states away and has been completely unable to navigate the awkwardness of post-divorce co-parenting. For years, he has made promises to visit Franklin or take him on trips, only to use work as an excuse to bail. In response to countless messages from Dad that never led to meaningful contact, Franklin has finally blocked him on phone, social media and elsewhere.

Complaining about this to his co-worker Jimmy (Lil Rey Howery), Chuck foolishly misinterprets a sympathetic anecdote as a suggestion. He goes home and builds an online profile from scratch, using the name and face of the last warmhearted stranger he encountered: Becca (Claudia Sulewski), a waitress who made him feel human for a few minutes as he sat alone in a diner. Chuck finds her profile, steals all her cheerful, wholesomely sexy photos and shoots a friend request at his son.

How does this fictional stranger know who Franklin is, and why’s she writing him? Why does her profile list no friends? Such questions are easily dismissed by a lonely, decidedly single guy who comes to life every time one of “Becca”‘s messages arrives. Morosini stages the interactions cleverly: Rather than filming himself staring wide-eyed at a phone, he places Sulewski in the scene, the actress reading words as Chuck types them. Chuck may be blind to the way his generically supportive messages will be interpreted as romantic, but viewers certainly won’t be. Within days, or maybe hours, Franklin believes he has a long-distance girlfriend.

The movie deals lightly with some practical hurdles in Chuck’s deception. Naturally, Franklin is eager for a video chat with Becca, or at least a phone call. This is roughly the point at which Chuck sees some flaws in his plan, but Oswalt is a master of making double-down self-deception believable: Chuck even, briefly, finds a way to convince his semi-girlfriend (Rachel Dratch) to “play a prank” on his son by pretending to be Becca on the phone.

Only Jimmy really understands what’s going on, and Howery is, as always, a reliably funny commentator on the insanity his character is witnessing. But Jimmy can’t prevent Chuck from orchestrating a road trip in which he will spend hours in a car with Franklin, hoping to bond with him while driving him to meet a girl who doesn’t even know he exists.

Viewers may feel they’ve seen it all when the inevitable happens, and Chuck is forced into a sexting session with his own son — a cringey sequence Morosini stages with fine comic timing, even if good taste is an impossibility. But they haven’t. The movie has at least one more disaster ahead, and this one, given Franklin’s fragile emotional state, could easily have tragic, permanent consequences.

Morosini’s script pulls some punches here without ever quite denying the stakes it has built up, both for its protagonist and the unwitting object of Franklin’s desire. Women who’ve been victims of stalking (digital or otherwise) may have a hard time finding the tale’s last act charming. But good intentions count for a lot in this film, which shares its elder protagonist’s belief that goodwill can conquer all — or at least not result in a crime scene and tabloid headlines.

Full credits

Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Narrative Feature Competition)
Production company: Burn Later Productions
Cast: Patton Oswalt, James Morosini, Claudia Sulewski, Rachel Dratch, Ricky Velez, Lil Rel Howery, Amy Landecker
Director-Screenwriter: James Morosini
Producers: Bill Stertz, Patton Oswalt, Sean O'Grady, Dane Eckerle, Phil Keefe, Daniel Brandt, Sam Slater

Director of photography: Steven Capitano Calitri
Production designer: Bret August Tanzer
Costume designer: Laura Barreto
Editor: Josh Crockett
Composer: Jeremy Bullock
Casting director: Eyde Belasco
Sales: Verve

1 hour 30 minutes