A movie has to be something special for me to recommend it when I’ve spent so much of it trying not to scream “No, no, NO!” on my computer screen.
Well, I recommend you go see “I love my father”.
Now playing at Nickelodeon in Portland (and airing video on demand on Friday), “I Love My Dad” could be called an example of what’s called “gritty comedy.” You know, the kind of movie where you watch characters make the kind of disastrous decisions that make your soul want to leave your body in pure discomfort. Yes, the genre is an acquired taste, and the kind of thing that, when done poorly, comes across as an exercise in malicious, restless, petty cruelty. When done right, it’s still no picnic, but there’s a uplifting humanity to the proceedings that affirms our shared, blind, and highly fallible humanity while showing how even our best intentions can go ballistic. catastrophic snow.
In “I Love My Dad,” director, screenwriter and star James Morosini plays Franklin, a young man who has just recovered from a suicide attempt at a facility where, as he explains to his band, he just setting “healthy boundaries” by blocking her father, Chuck, on social media. Chuck, played by comedian and actor Patton Oswalt in a surprisingly fearless performance, is, indeed, trouble. Adoring his only son as much as he’s seemingly been absent from all the important events in his life, Chuck’s divorced and estranged parenting style is represented by an initial set of voicemails, each a more desperate mix of apologies. and self-pity as the last.
When Chuck at work realizes that Franklin has indeed cut him off from the only online lifeline left to their relationship, he is deprived, with Oswalt first manifesting Chuck’s bewildered grief in the form of an inconsolable meltdown, crying at the local diner in front of a friendly waitress named Becca (Claudia Sulewski), then, seizing on an offhand remark from a friendly co-worker (Lil Rel Howery), had a really, really bad idea. Searching for Becca’s online presence, he swipes photos of the pretty young woman, creates a fake profile, and befriends the lonely and troubled Franklin online.
It is an easy configuration to describe. (“Daddy fishes his own son.”) And, in a lesser film, the resulting developments, perhaps inevitable, would unfold in wacky, clumsy ugliness, like Franklin’s initial suspicions (why this beautiful young woman with no other online friends wants to get to know him) force Chuck to tell more and more elaborate lies so that his only bond with his son isn’t severed with a click of the block button. And, don’t get me wrong, “I Love My Dad” gets big on both prank and grimace, as Chuck finds himself having to walk the line between being a sympathetic shoulder to his unsuspecting son to cry and fending off the inevitable crush that Franklin develops for this seemingly perfect dream girl.
The fact that Morosini chooses to visualize Chuck’s increasingly frequent interactions with his son by having Franklin imagine the flesh-and-blood Becca speaking to him in person does indeed increase the dramatic and comedic tensions, leading to sickening scenes in which the confused imaginations of father and son begin to substitute the real Chuck for the imaginary Becca in Franklin’s mind. (And, yes, that means we see a father-son makeup scene. Or rather, more than one.) And things only get more frantic for Chuck once Franklin, breaking his self-imposed exile from life of his father, reaches out to see if Chuck will drive him from Massachusetts to Maine so he can meet Becca for real. (Here, the Mainer in me will note excitedly that this ride doesn’t usually require a motel stopover, and that, titmouse license plates aside, the movie was actually shot in Syracuse, New York .)
Again, this all sounds like a lot – and it is. The potential for storytelling disaster abounds, as Chuck’s sweaty improvisations grow ever more elaborate and weighty. But here I will highlight another very dark father-son comedy starring a brilliant stand-up comedian in “World’s Greatest Dad” (2009) directed by Bobcat Goldthwait. There, too, we watch a flawed but loving father do increasingly unthinkable things to maintain a hopelessly selfish fiction. And, like that movie, “I Love My Dad” doesn’t shy away from exploring how a parent’s undeniable love doesn’t stop that parent’s weaknesses from creating a massive, painful, and potentially disastrous mess.
Here it’s Oswalt who really shines, as Chuck (shown in a pre-credits scene doing something deeply irresponsible and monstrous to please his impressionable child) never dissuades us that Franklin could, indeed, be much better. without him. An inveterate, if not skilled, liar, Chuck’s life of missed birthdays and defensive excuses has cost him his son and his marriage (to the eminently sensitive Amy Landecker), who agrees to allow Franklin to take the father road trip. -son only after concluding that thwarting the frail, loving young man’s enthusiasm might cause him to relapse. Along the way, we see Chuck sinking deeper into the quicksand he himself shed, his swamp of lies bringing him and his son closer together more uncomfortably.
I sat for much of this movie with my mouth open involuntarily at Chuck’s latest twisted lie, no less because Oswalt channels Chuck’s obsessive love and bottomless self-obsession with equal, unflinching honesty. . As his Becca tries to break Franklin’s depression with the effusive love and praise of a father, Chuck also selfishly asks his online creation to advise his son that his poor father is doing the best he can. Fake Becca even cooks up a backstory where she never got to tell her late father how much she truly loves him, with Chuck’s selfish manipulation being the biggest betrayal in a long, desperate series of them.
When things explode, as they should, Chuck’s confession is gruesome, heartbreaking, and, in Oswalt’s hands, a masterclass in complex, lived-in character work. Morosini makes Franklin’s pain very real, his hesitant, if reckless, re-emergence from some very dangerous waters as genuinely sweet as it is doomed. Morosini, the screenwriter, isn’t quite sure what to do with his female characters, as Landecker’s formidable, present, and loving mom finds herself screaming into her phone in the movie’s heartwarming twist, and Rachel Dratch (very funny as the suspect of Chuck’s boss and lover) is dumped as mere collateral damage to Chuck’s plot. Sulewski (appropriately, a former online personality) manages to do something about her dual role as Chuck and Franklin’s idealized object and beleaguered Maine restaurant waitress caught in Chuck’s web.
Morosini, in interviews, has revealed that his father actually catfished him at some point during their former split, a development which, while painful at the time, turned into a thoughtful and fun exploration of father-son relationships. Oswalt, a top stand-up and always subtle character actor, has never looked so good. His description of the (horribly stupid) things we do for love in the internet age is a tour de force that I wouldn’t be surprised to see mentioned at the Oscars.
See it at The Nick or On Demand, but probably don’t watch it with your dad.
Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.
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