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Patton Oswalt, left, and James Morosini in “I Love My Dad.”

Patton Oswalt, left, and James Morosini in “I Love My Dad.” (Magnolia Pictures)

What do you do when life hands you lemons? You make lemonade, of course.

What do you do when life hands you a mind-bendingly humiliating and emotional trauma involving yourself, your father and the internet? You make a movie about it.

"I Love My Dad" premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March and won both the jury prize and the audience award for best narrative feature - pretty remarkable for a movie most audiences watch through their fingers while screaming in embarrassment. The second feature film from writer-director-star James Morosini ("Threesomething"), it's an ink-black comedy about Franklin, a brooding young man played by the filmmaker, who has cut off all communication with his unreliable screw-up of a father, Chuck, played by actor-comedian Patton Oswalt. Desperate to connect, the father creates a fake Facebook account and, under the guise of Becca (Claudia Sulewski), a willowy and sympathetic woman Franklin's age, establishes a relationship with his son that can't help veering into oh-no-they-didn't/oh-my-god-they-did territory.

It sounds like a tabloid headline or the title of a particularly unseemly Subreddit: I Got Catfished By My Own Father. Yet "I Love My Dad," which opened in theaters Friday and whose title points in at least two directions, is more than just a one-joke cringefest. On the contrary, it goes to some honest and movingly real places in the eternal struggle between parent and child - while simultaneously making you want to rinse your eyeballs with lye.

Worst of all? (Or best, depending on how much you're into schadenfreude.) This really happened to James Morosini. Speaking recently by Zoom from his home in Los Angeles, the lanky filmmaking triple threat, 32, 'fesses up. "When I was around 20 years old, I got in a big fight with my dad and I decided in kind of 20-year-old fashion that I was going to cut him out, that I was done with him. Blocked him on Facebook, changed his name in my phone to Do Not Answer. And I got home one day and this really pretty girl sent me a friend request on Facebook, and she had all the same interests as me and all these great pictures. I got really excited, and I started to feel kind of better about myself. My self-esteem started to improve. And then I found out that it was my dad, and he created this thing as a way of making sure I was OK."

And how long did the deception last? "Longer than I wish it had, I'll say."

At the same time, Morosini says the social media disaster led to an odd sort of reckoning between father and son. "It forced our relationship to hit this rock bottom that allowed an experience of honesty to start being more important in our relationship. And that's what the film is about in a lot of ways. How are we honest in our relationships? And what does it mean to be closer to somebody if you're getting closer to them in a dishonest way?"

James Morosini’s “I Love My Dad” won both the jury prize and the audience award for best narrative feature at the South by Southwest Film Festival.

James Morosini’s “I Love My Dad” won both the jury prize and the audience award for best narrative feature at the South by Southwest Film Festival. (Sela Shiloni)

"I Love My Dad" has broken the filmmaker out of his generational cohort of young Hollywood guys, all writing and acting and putting weird comedy shorts on the internet while hoping for their big break. Morosini grew up shooting little action videos in the Boston suburbs - "kids with boxing gloves on, that don't know how to fight, trying to punch each other" - and, after graduating from the University of Southern California's School of Dramatic Arts, tried to make it as an actor, finding some success ("American Horror Story" on FX, "The Sex Lives of College Girls" on HBO Max) and little fulfillment.

"I was often cast as a bro or, like, the dumb guy," he says. "I was making a decent living, but I wasn't necessarily that fulfilled creatively. So I was spending a lot of time writing features and making web series and watching an obsessive amount of film. I would go down, like, the AFI Top 100. I would go down Sight & Sound's Top 100. I would go country by country. I spent a lot of time with Éric Rohmer and became really obsessed with Michael Haneke."

That eclecticism reflects the movies Morosini likes and the movies he wants to make. "I admire a big-budget Hollywood film," he says, "but then I also love the more personal indies. And I think my intent is to try and combine those sensibilities. My dream is to make big-budget spectacle films that have a certain weirdness to them, that have almost a taboo embedded in them in some way or another."

With "I Love My Dad," he has nailed the taboo part. The scenes in which a lovestruck Franklin wants to get, uh, intimate with his new internet girlfriend while Chuck, on the other side of the phone, frantically tries to backpedal and then improvise, are horrifyingly hilarious or hilariously horrifying, especially when seen with an audience in full vocal mortification.

"That's part of the mischievous delight of the film, watching everybody freak out while they're watching it," the director admits. "And I think that was my intent making it, to take people through that roller coaster, where some parts are really sarcastic and then there are parts that are really sincere, and the audience has to be on their toes the whole time."

Patton Oswalt, left, plays the father in “I Love My Dad.”

Patton Oswalt, left, plays the father in “I Love My Dad.” (Magnolia Pictures)

He has special praise for his co-star, who commits to the role of Chuck with a fearlessness that evokes a kind of squeamish awe. "Patton is able to bring levity to darkness and he's also able to work with tone, where he's able to shift gears and go from light to dark and dark to light," Morosini says. "And he approaches all this work with a great sense of humanity."

Oswalt, reached by email while in San Diego for Comic-Con, said of working with Morosini: "He gave me something great to play against, in that in a lot of our scenes you see he doesn't give me anything, because those are the walls the son has put up around his father. My trying to break through those walls created this terrific tension and led to some real emotion [and human comedy]."

When asked what he sees in Morosini's future, Oswalt responded: "I have no idea where he's headed. He's gonna zig and zag like the great early '70s directors. Sidney Lumet went from 'Serpico' to 'Murder on the Orient Express' to 'Dog Day Afternoon' to 'Network.' The directors that are true searchers never try to carve out a niche. They try to expand the canvas."

Morosini embraces that search. "I feel like I have a very particular thing I'm chasing, and I can't even quite articulate it," he says. "But I know that 'I Love My Dad' is a step of that journey."

Before that next step, though, the world wants to know: What did Morosini's father think about the movie? "I was nervous for him to see it," the filmmaker says, "but he loves it and he's in on the joke and is able to laugh at himself. And, I don't know, that's how I try to process things in my own life. How can I laugh at them and realize that in the grand scheme of things you can laugh at anything?"

One answer is to get an audience to laugh - and feel - along with you.


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