Indie Film: This comedy about a father catfishing his son is worth cringing through

Patton Oswalt and James Morosini play father and son in “I Love My Dad.” Photos courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

A movie has to be something special for me to recommend it when I spent much of its running time trying to keep from shouting, “No, no, NO!” at my computer screen.

Well, I’m recommending you go and see “I Love My Dad.”

Now playing at Portland’s Nickelodeon (and hitting video on demand on Friday), “I Love My Dad” might be termed an example of what’s called “cringe comedy.” You know, the sort of film where you watch characters make the sort of disastrous decisions that make your soul want to leave your body in sheer discomfort. Yeah, the genre is an acquired taste, and the sort of thing that, when done badly, emerges as an exercise in malicious, flailing, mean-spirited cruelty. When done well, it’s still no picnic, but there’s a leavening humanity to the proceedings that asserts our shared, blinkered, very fallible humanity while showing how even our best intentions can snowball into catastrophe.

In “I Love My Dad,” director, writer and star James Morosini is Franklin, a young man just getting over a suicide attempt at a facility where, as he explains to his group, he has just set “healthy boundaries” by blocking his father, Chuck, on social media. Chuck, as played by comedian and actor Patton Oswalt in a performance of starting fearlessness, is, indeed, a problem. Doting on his only son as much as he’s been absent from seemingly every important event in his life, the divorced and estranged Chuck’s parenting style is represented by an opening string of voicemail messages, each one a more desperate mix of excuses and self-pity than the last.

When Chuck, at work, realizes that Franklin has well and truly cut him off from the one, online lifeline left to their relationship, he is bereft, Oswalt manifesting Chuck’s bewildered grief first as unconsolable meltdown, weeping at the local diner in front of a friendly waitress named Becca (Claudia Sulewski), and then, seizing upon an offhand remark from a sympathetic coworker (Lil Rel Howery), hitting upon a very, very bad idea. Searching out Becca’s online presence, he swipes pictures of the attractive young woman, creates a fake profile, and befriends the lonely and troubled Franklin online.

It’s an easy setup to describe. (“Dad catfishes own son.”) And, in a lesser movie, the resulting, perhaps inevitable developments would play out in clumsily farcical ugliness, as Franklin’s initial suspicions (as to why this beautiful young woman with no other online friends wants to get to know him) require Chuck to spin out more and more elaborate lies so his one connection to his son isn’t cut off with a click of the block button. And, don’t get me wrong, “I Love My Dad” goes big on both the farce and the cringe, as Chuck finds himself having to walk the line between being a sympathetic shoulder from his unsuspecting son to cry on, and fending off the inevitable crush Franklin develops on this seemingly perfect dream girl.

Claudia Sulewski, the Maine love interest of Morosini, right, in “I Love My Dad.”

The fact that Morosini chooses to visualize Chuck’s ever-more-frequent interactions with his son by having Franklin imagine the flesh-and blood Becca speaking to him in person does, indeed, heighten the dramatic and comic tensions, leading to some queasy scenes in which the confused father and son’s imaginations start substituting the real Chuck for the imaginary Becca in Franklin’s mind. (And, yes, that does mean we see a father-son makeout scene. Or, rather, more than one.) And things only get more frenzied for Chuck once Franklin, breaking his self-imposed exile from his father’s life, reaches out to see if Chuck will drive him from Massachusetts up to Maine so he can meet Becca for real. (Here, the Mainer in me will huffily note that that drive doesn’t usually require a motel stopover, and that, chickadee license plates aside, the film was actually shot in Syracuse, New York.)

Again, all of this seems like a lot – and it is. The potential for storytelling disaster aheads, as Chuck’s sweaty improvisations become more and more elaborate and fraught. But here, I’ll point to another excellently dark father-son comedy starring a brilliant stand-up comedian in the Bobcat Goldthwait-directed “World’s Greatest Dad” (2009). There, too, we watch a flawed but loving father do increasingly unthinkable things all to maintain a desperately self-serving fiction. And, like that film, “I Love My Dad” doesn’t shy away from exploring how the undeniable love of a parent doesn’t preclude that parent’s weaknesses from creating an enormous, painful, potentially disastrous mess.

Here, it’s Oswalt who truly shines, as Chuck (shown in a pre-credits scene doing something deeply irresponsible and monstrous in order to please his impressionable child) never dissuades us that Franklin might, indeed, be far better off without him. An inveterate, if not skilled, liar, Chuck’s lifetime of missed birthdays and defensive excuses has cost him his son, and his marriage (to the eminently sensible Amy Landecker), who agrees to allow Franklin to go on the father-son road trip only after concluding that thwarting the smitten and fragile young man’s enthusiasm might cause him to relapse. Along the way, we see Chuck sinking deeper into the quicksand he’s poured himself, his swamp of lies drawing him and his son tighter and more uncomfortably together.

I sat through much of this movie with my mouth unwittingly agape at Chuck’s latest, squirmy lie, no less because Oswalt channels Chuck’s obsessive love and his bottomless self-obsession with equal and unsparing honesty. As his Becca tries to break through Franklin’s depression with a father’s effusive love and praise, Chuck also selfishly has his online creation counsel his son that his poor dad’s just doing his best. Fake Becca even concocts a backstory where she never got to tell her late father how much she really loves him, Chuck’s self-serving manipulation the greatest betrayal in a long, desperate string of them.

When things explode, as they must, Chuck’s confession is horrible, wrenching, and, in Oswalt’s hands, a master class in complex, lived-in character work. Morosini makes Franklin’s pain very real, his tentative, if unwise, reemergence from some very dangerous waters as genuinely sweet as it is doomed. Morosini the screenwriter isn’t entirely certain what to do with his female characters, however, as Landecker’s formidable, present and loving mom is left yelling into her phone in the film’s would-be heartwarming twist, and Rachel Dratch (very funny as Chuck’s suspicious boss and lover) is jettisoned as more collateral damage to Chuck’s plotting. Sulewski (fittingly, a former online personality) manages to make something of her dual role as Chuck and Franklin’s idealized object and the beleaguered Maine diner waitress caught in Chuck’s web.

Morosini, in interviews, has revealed that his father actually did catfish him at one point in their former estrangement, a development that, while no doubt painful at the time, he’s turned into a thoughtful and funny exploration of father-son relationships. Oswalt, a top-tier stand-up and a consistently subtle character actor, has never been better. His description of the (horrifyingly stupid) things we do for love in the internet age is a tour de force that I wouldn’t be surprised to see mentioned come Oscar time.

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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