If comedy is tragedy plus time, then James Morosini is surely ahead of schedule in only taking 10 years to make a movie out of the time he was catfished by his dad. When he was 19, Morosini got into a fight with his father and blocked him on social media. Shortly afterwards, he received a Facebook friend request from his dream girl. Now, I Love My Dad tells the true story of that absolutely bats--t insane, totally misguided but ultimately sort of sweet untruth.
"Some of it is invention, so that it's exciting and high stakes and whatnot," Morosini, now 32, tells A.frame, "but I'd say emotionally the whole movie is true. My dad catfished me in a very specific way and I wanted to tell a story about it."
I Love My Dad unfolds from both the perspective of Franklin (Morosini), who's grown tired of his dad's excuses and decides to establish a boundary, and Chuck (Patton Oswalt), who wants the best for his son even if his attempts at delivering it might actually be making things worse. When Franklin blocks his dad on Facebook, Chuck creates a fake profile — "Becca" — in order to keep tabs on his son. But then Franklin begins catching feelings for Becca.
Are you laughing yet? "Nailing the tone of the film took a lot of massaging," Morosini says. He knew in order for the movie to work, the audience had to empathize with, or at the very least, begin to understand Chuck's intentions. So, Morosini asked his father. (The movie begins with the title card, "The following actually happened. My dad asked me to tell you it didn't.")
"I asked him a lot of difficult questions about the nature of our relationship. We talked about what honesty means to both of us and the pitfalls of honesty sometimes. I was able to really develop that point of view and push back against it and then have my perspective challenged as well, as I was writing," he says. "My dad also gave me access to his journals, which were overwhelming to read but very insightful as I was crafting this perspective."
Morosini pauses, offering up something between a grin and a wince. "I wouldn't recommend it."
Morosini always knew he wanted to star in I Love My Dad, if only because for the meta-ness of it. To him, there was something subversive about having experienced this in real life, and now viewers watching him re-experience it onscreen. Oswalt came to mind as Morosini was writing Chuck. "He has an incredible ability to inject humor and levity into some really dark subjects," the filmmaker explains. "He also just approaches his comedy with a big heart and really a deep understanding of humanity as a whole."
For Oswalt, it was the audacity of I Love My Dad that made him want to be a part of it. "I love movies in extremist, even when I think they go too far," he says. "I've seen cringe on both sides of the spectrum, comedy-wise and horror-wise. Audition and Borat. I think some of Bergman's films count as cringe, how they go so far emotionally. The Celebration is a great example of cringe comedy masquerading as a funny family get-together. But then, oh my f--king god, dude. So, I'm always drawn to that."
And the movie is cringe-inducing for much of its 96-minute runtime. Because of the premise, yes, but also because of a creative choice Morosini made early on: Becca (played by Claudia Sulewski) would appear in person to Franklin during their text exchanges, while Franklin would materialize IRL for Chuck. When crosscut against one another, the shifting perspectives plays to the dramatic irony of the situation. And as the texts become sexts, the cringe of it all.
"The fact that it was making me squirm just reading it — which almost never happens in a screenplay — I couldn't wait to see if they could pull this off."
One relatively tame scene, by I Love My Dad standards, sees Franklin confessing his romantic feelings for Becca and asking if he can pretend to kiss her. On the other end of the computer, Chuck is horrified that his catfishing has become physical. But they internet kiss. On Franklin's end, he imagines a euphoric first kiss with Becca. On Chuck's end, he grimaces through making out with his son. (Just imagine what comes next!)
"The squirm was there on the page," Oswalt says. "The fact that it was making me squirm just reading it — which almost never happens in a screenplay — I couldn't wait to see if they could pull this off filmically."
"I love cringe comedy. I find that I'm both drawn to it and repelled by it at the same time," Morosini says. "It creates this intense internal tension that I'm interested in. [But] I didn't want to do cringe for the sake of cringe. I find that when movies get too jokey, it undercuts the base reality and it diminishes our investment in the story. I wanted it to be emotionally grounded throughout, so that we really understand why Chuck is doing what he's doing and why Franklin is doing what he's doing. I did exercise restraint as I was writing it, because I didn't want to just try to be funny for funny's sake."
Still, Morosini laughs, "There's not much further it could've gone."
I Love My Dad premiered during this year's South by Southwest Film Festival, where Oswalt recalls, "I was in the f****** movie and when we showed it, I was like, 'Oh my...'" He mimics turning from the screen and covering his eyes. "I think Amy Landecker wanted to leave at one point. She was like, 'I can't take this. This is so intense!'" The film won the festival's Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award.
But as viscerally uncomfortable as the movie is, for as daring as it is in going there, I Love My Dad is nevertheless a deeply empathetic film about a father and son learning to understand one another a little bit better — all the more impressive considering it happened to Morosini. The movie ends with a dedication from him: "for my dad," who was in attendance at SXSW and appeared onstage after the screening for an impromptu (and only slightly squirm-inducing) Q&A. ("He's really into it, which I'm relieved and honestly impressed by," Morosini reports.)
When all is said and done, Morosini's dad catfished him from a place of love. Now, his son has made a cringe comedy with nothing but good intentions.
"I hope people connect with this idea that we're all working with really limited tools in our ability to connect with other people, and sometimes we don't go about it in the right way. And that doesn't necessarily mean we're bad people," Morosini says. "I've had a few people come up to me after screenings, saying, 'Hey, I haven't talked to my dad in five years. I'm going to call him today.' If people even consider opening the door to difficult relationships they've had and to maybe reconsider them in a more empathetic light, that's something that would be really cool to see happen."
By John Boone