James Morosini on his autobiographical catfish comedy ‘I Love My Dad’
Chicago - Interacting with your parents on social media can lead to awkward exchanges visible to all. Writer/director/star James Morosini takes that idea to cringe-y — and surprisingly sweet — new heights in his sophomore feature, "I Love My Dad," which arrived in theaters Aug. 5 and is currently available digitally and On Demand. "I would think about times I felt embarrassed by my parents, and I wanted to funnel that into this movie. I think that's something everyone can relate to in one way or another," Morosini tells FOX Television Stations.
Grounding the action in something familiar was essential, as the premise of "I Love My Dad" takes parental concern to the extreme when estranged father Chuck (Patton Oswalt) catfishes his son Franklin (Morosini) in a bid to reconnect. It’s a set-up that Morosini knows all too well: "The following actually happened," reads a disclaimer of sorts at the beginning of "I Love My Dad." "My dad asked me to tell you it didn’t."
About "I Love My Dad": A father/son catfish cringe comedy
Morosini’s real-life catfishing story happened about a decade ago, when the filmmaker blocked his dad on social media after getting into a huge argument.
"Around that time, I was in a rough spot, and he was worried about me, but I wouldn't talk with him. I got home one day, and this really pretty girl had sent me a friend request online," Morosini recalls. He was thrilled that he shared the same interests with this new acquaintance, until things took an unexpected twist: "It turned out to be my dad, and this story was born."
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Patton Oswalt and James Morosini in I LOVE MY DAD, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
Revisiting such a personal story in the form a film script might not seem like the best way to mend fences, but there are no residual hard feelings. "The first time my dad saw it was in an audience of 600 people at South by Southwest," Morosini notes. He sat next to his father, which was a "harrowing experience"; thankfully, the film got a resounding thumbs-up from its source of inspiration. "He loved the movie and was able to laugh and enjoy it. He even came up for a Q&A after the movie was finished."
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Premiering the movie at the first in-person SXSW since 2019 was a "dream come true" for Morosini — one that saw "I Love My Dad" win jury and audience awards. "When you're telling a story that's this non-traditional and weird, it's scary. You're not sure if people are gonna get it," Morosini admits. "To receive the level of love that we did for the movie, and for people to get it and be down with the weirdness of the whole thing was rewarding."
A horror comedy, easy on the horror
Indeed, certain moments in "I Love My Dad" prompt the kind of loud audience reactions usually reserved for a different genre altogether. "A lot of times, people are yelling at the screen, going, ‘Oh my god! Don't do it!' It's almost like a comedic horror movie," Morosini observes. "I've never heard an audience so vocal during a comedy. It's usually horror that people are having that reaction to."
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James Morosini in I LOVE MY DAD, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
Morosini also drew on personal experience in the film’s exploration of mental health, explaining, "I've struggled with anxiety and depression my whole life. I've been in and out of therapy my whole life." Rather than focusing on that element in the narrative, however, Morosini "wanted it to be somewhat peripheral to the story."
He adds, "I think those things often do feel somewhat peripheral to the way we're going through our lives — our mental health — that's something that's always a passenger to our experience."
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Casting the catfish
Casting an actor who could convey the extremes of the story without pushing the audience away was vital, and Morosini "had Patton in mind" as he was writing. After the multi-hyphenate actor/comedian said yes ("we shared the vision for the film"), Morosini knew he wanted other comedians to play some of the significant supporting roles. Lil Rel Howery and Rachel Dratch portray Chuck’s co-workers Jimmy and Erica (who Chuck is also dating), and the hilarious duo are "able to call Patton's character out throughout the story and keep him honest where he's having to defend his position." Amy Landecker, meanwhile, plays Franklin’s concerned mother, Diane, and "she took the role very seriously," according to Morosini. "She reached out to my actual mom; they became friends."
And while Morosini pulls triple duty as writer, director and star, Claudia Sulewski also pulls off a difficult juggling act in a breakout performance. Sulewski plays Becca, the waitress whose identity Chuck uses to get in touch with his son. "She has this natural ease and likability that made her perfect for the role," Morosini notes. To prepare, Sulewski worked a few shifts at the diner where Chuck first encounters Becca. And she also had to craft a distinctive "catfish" version of the character as well.
Claudia Sulewski and James Morosini in I LOVE MY DAD, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
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The latter comes into play via Morosini’s inventive solution to avoid having two characters stare at their phone screens for most of the film. Instead, an imagined version of Becca pops up to interact with Franklin whenever the two chat online. For Morosini, the cinematic device helps capture the way that "it feels like the person's right there with you" when you're texting someone. And since the audience knows this isn’t the real Becca, putting her in the same room as Franklin reinforces the deception, creates a bond — even if that bond is with his father — and heightens the discomfort.
Be ready to cringe — but from a "place of love"
Considering the tone of "I Love My Dad," it isn’t surprising to hear that Morosini is a cringe comedy fan, citing filmmakers and artists like Ruben Östlund (director of the 2018 international hit "The Square"), Sacha Baron Cohen and Nathan Fielder as inspiration.
But though "I Love My Dad" grows more extreme as Franklin becomes increasingly enamored with his new online friend, Morosini never wanted the film to become too farcical. "I knew it needed to be emotionally grounded the whole way through — nothing could just be [solely] for laughs," he says of Chuck’s motivation. "He wants to make sure his son doesn't hurt himself. So everything he does comes from that place of love."
That means there is an intrinsic push-pull to "I Love My Dad" in its exploration of the inevitable ups and downs of relationships. "This movie is a celebration of making it through tough times with the people in our life that we care about, and what it means to try and give each other second chances, or not," says Morosini. "And what it means to set those boundaries versus let someone into our lives."
You can watch the full interview above, and find "I Love My Dad" digitally and On Demand, as well as in select theaters.
Rated R. 96 minutes. Dir: James Morosini. Featuring: Patton Oswalt, James Morosini, Claudia Sulewski, Rachel Dratch, Ricky Velez, Lil Rel Howery, Amy Landecker.
Make it a double feature with "The Waterboy," streaming free on Tubi
The Waterboy (1998): Adam Sandler struck comedy gold — and one of his biggest box office hits — with this story of a socially awkward but well-meaning water boy whose anger management issues make him a surprisingly effective linebacker. Bobby Boucher is up there with Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore and Robbie Hart as one of the most iconic characters in Sandler’s ’90s career. But maybe the sweetest thing to come out of this film is Kathy Bates continuing to refer to herself as Sandler’s "mama." Rated PG-13. 89 minutes. Dir: Frank Coraci. Featuring: Adam Sandler, Kathy Bates, Fairuza Balk, Jerry Reed, Henry Winkler.
"The Waterboy" is streaming free on Tubi — get the app
How to watch "I Love My Dad"
"I Love My Dad" is available digitally and On Demand. It’s also playing in select theaters.
About the writer: Emma Fraser is a freelance culture writer with a focus on TV, movies, and costume design. She has contributed to Elle, The Daily Beast, IGN, Vulture, The Cut, Thrillist, Little White Lies, and more. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @frazbelina.
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