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In “I Love My Dad,” writer-director James Morosini plays Franklin, an unaffected 20-something whose life is nearly ruined by her well-meaning but unreliable father, Chuck. As the film opens, Franklin is leaving rehab, possibly after a disastrous battle with depression. In an effort to start anew, he stops his father from contacting him, forcing Chuck to take extreme measures to keep an eye on Franklin’s work: impersonating a charming local waitress named Becca (Claudia Sulevsky). After all, he will return to his son. Good grace, at least on Facebook. What on earth could go wrong?
Much, as Morosini demonstrates in a film that is increasingly more interesting thanks to the fact that it is based on a true story. Morosini’s father had actually assumed the identity of a young woman in order to be reunited with his son, resulting in perhaps the scariest case of catfishing in Internet history. But what could be framed as a dark morality tale of serious boundary violations and harassment could instead be something warm, funny, and far more forgiving than the semi-neurotic protagonist at its center. Morosini isn’t out to settle the score with “I Love My Dad,” whose title isn’t ironic in the least; Rather, he is interested in something bigger, dealing with self-deception, love’s limitations and the peculiar personal hell that we manage to achieve through our best intentions.
That “I Love My Dad” is uncomfortably melodramatically accessible, rather than the death penalty, has everything to do with the likes of Morosini, from his poignantly attentive screenplay to his casting of Patton Oswalt as Chuck. In any other hand, this fiery, borderline narcissistic character would be too unpleasant to root for at any level; Oswalt doesn’t shy away from playing those notes, but they add generous layers of vulnerability, uncanny naivety, and country harmony. There are hilarious moments to thank for Chuck’s best friend Jimmy (Lil Ril Howery) and girlfriend Erica, whose obscene comments are peppered with innocent deadpan straightness by Rachel Dratch.
“I Love My Dad” walks on a vertical link between shedding light on its poignant subject matter and making it simply frivolous, a tonal feat that the actors handle with professionalism and mastery, especially when the stakes get high. Morosini embraces its surrealism through simple staging and editing, allowing Chuck and Becca to change scene-by-scene depending on who Franklin is talking to. The effect is both graceful and poignant with Morosini—whose handsome, dangling face perfectly conveys her character’s precarious self-image—having room for emotions that are simultaneously exhilarating, confusing, and supremely fragile.
It’s no surprise that things don’t end well in “I Love My Dad.” But neither do they end disastrously. It’s a strange and surprisingly detailed story, executed by Morosini with a pity for humanism rather than drool, oddball quirks. By putting the audience inside the weirdness of what happened to him, he gives the audience the rare privilege of actually laughing instead of his characters.
R. Landmark’s E Street Cinema and Alamo Drafthouse Cinema on Bryant Street; Available on demand August 12th. Contains sexuality and strong language. 90 mins.