As far as adults who were catfished by their fathers go, actor and filmmaker James Morosini is remarkably well-adjusted.

Of course, there’s not much of a benchmark for comparison, in terms of people who, when they were 20 years old, received a Facebook message from an attractive girl named Becca who magically shared all their same interests, leading to an extended, flirtatious cyber romance—before discovering that Becca was actually their father, who they had a falling-out with and was trying to stay in touch by pretending to be a young girl with a crush. (Phew.)

So, yes, Morosini may rank among the few, if not sole, population samples when it comes to going through such an outrageous, potentially traumatizing life event. But the actor, who most recently played Dalton, the soccer coach who has an affair with one of his students on HBO Max’s The Sex Lives of College Girls, has processed it in what appears to be the healthiest way possible. So healthy, in fact, that he has now written and directed a movie about this, a part of his life that he had carried around like a shameful secret—and has now shown it to a crowd of moviegoers, industry folk, critics, and journalists at the SXSW Film Festival.

When we first meet over Zoom, it’s impossible not to blurt out, “This is such a crazy story!” It’s a reflex—and it’s true—but we immediately cover our mouths in horror, trying to push the reaction back in. How patronizing, if not judgmental, to say this to someone. This isn’t a crazy story. It’s his life.

“No, I’ll take it!” Morosini says. “I think it’s a crazy fucking story.”

The filmmaker, now 31, grins—the kind of boyish half-smirk trampolining off of a handsome, chiseled jawline that allows him to play the younger, semi-fictionalized version of himself in his movie. “One of the main reasons I wrote it is because I was able to recognize that this is weird. It’s this cool blend of something really weird, but also beautiful in a bizarre way.” Yes, you read that right: beautiful.

I Love My Dad premiered Saturday at SXSW in Austin, Texas. Once you’re aware of the subject matter, it’s a title that takes on an alarming double meaning. It’s the second feature that Morosini, who has also appeared in American Horror Story: Roanoke and the YouTube Red rom-com series Foursome, wrote and directed. The first, Threesomething, chronicles the fallout of a ménage à trois gone horribly wrong.

The impulse is to tiptoe through questioning Morosini about I Love My Dad. What happened to him was grotesque and abusive. At times, you almost want to laugh. But also, there’s the need for sensitivity. It really happened. The act of revisiting it in order to write, direct and star in this film—let alone sit with journalists and talk about it all publicly—could be healing. But it could also be triggering.

“I believe everything I do creatively should force me to grow in some way or another, or make me uncomfortable in one way or another,” Morosini says. “This was the most uncomfortable thing I could write about.”

There are elements of the film, and of Morosini’s real story, that will shock audiences, beyond the obvious scandal of the catfishing—for example, that he and his father actually worked through this, and that I Love My Dad takes great care not to villainize this cinematic interpretation of him, played by Patton Oswalt.

James Morosini and Patton Oswalt in I Love My Dad

SXSW

Morosini wanted the audience to empathize with the father of his character, Franklin. Maybe they would even find themselves rooting for his bizarre plan—catfishing his son in order to feel closer to him—to work out. If not that extreme, at least they might understand where his head was at when he decided to go to the lengths of creating a fake social media account in order to check up on him.

It was triggering, Morosini says. But, yes, it was healing, too. “I wanted it to be as personal and make me feel as exposed as possible.”

The film begins with a title card that we’re pretty used to seeing in based-on-a-true story movies like this: “The following actually happened.” But then, immediately following, there’s a disclaimer: “My dad asked me to tell you it didn’t.”

As it unfolds in I Love You Dad, we meet Franklin, Morosini’s character, who is finishing up a rehab program to address what appears to be severe depression and suicidal ideation. Through a montage of past voicemails, we’re introduced to Franklin’s father’s long history of being a disappointment. Canceled plans. Grand promises that are reneged on. Ovations of love immediately followed by begging for forgiveness for once again ghosting.

Eventually, Franklin blocks his dad’s number and blocks him on social media. After consulting with his mom (Amy Landecker) and counselor, he rules that cutting off contact is better for his mental health and recovery. The film also spends a great deal of time following Oswalt’s character, Chuck, who is desperate to reconnect. A friend, played by Lil Rel Howery, told him about the one time he pretended to be someone else on social media to get back with an ex.

No one, least of all Chuck, imagined that this would be a fruitful, let alone sane, recourse for his situation. But after encountering a kind waitress at the local diner named Becca (Claudia Sulewski), Chuck finds her on Facebook and decides to use her photos to create a fake account that he could message Franklin from. To his credit, he has a meltdown before he does it. He recognizes that this is inappropriate. But he presses send anyway, and is surprised/confused/delighted/concerned that Franklin messages back right away.

I wanted it to be as personal and make me feel as exposed as possible.

Once they get past the awkwardness of why a stranger is reaching out, Franklin and Becca connect deeply. Of course they do, because Chuck knows personal details about Franklin and what he needs to hear in order to feel special. The conversations do wonders to boost Franklin’s self-esteem and help lift him out of the fog of depression.

That’s all very sweet. Other elements of their chats: Dear God, no.

Franklin develops a crush and starts to message Becca romantically. Panicked, Chuck goes along with it. When Franklin is messaging Becca about what it feels like to be pretending to kiss her, he’s actually messaging his father—and his father is messaging what it feels like to be pretending to kiss him right back. It goes so far that when things escalate to sexting, Chuck sends Franklin’s dirty messages to his own girlfriend (Rachel Dratch), and then copy and pastes her erotic responses to Franklin as if coming from Becca. They have cyber sex.

Morosini stages these scenes so that they are a mix of outlandish, thrilling, cringe-inducing, and funny. But they’re also straight out of a horror movie.

“I took the kernel of what actually happened and extrapolated upon that, and used my imagination to push it to the furthest degree of, ‘What if it had gone even further in this direction?’” Morosini says. “Or, you know, what if I hadn’t found out? Or what if it had taken me longer to find out?”

In real life, he struggled with depression and anxiety throughout much of his twenties. He and his father were going through a rough time and, after a big fight, he decided that he didn’t want him in his life anymore. He changed his dad’s number in his phone to “Do Not Answer.” He blocked him on social media.

I took the kernel of what actually happened and extrapolated upon that, and used my imagination to push it to the furthest degree of, ‘What if it had gone even further in this direction?’

Then one day, he got home and saw that a pretty girl had sent him a friend request on Facebook. They had all the same interests. As time went by, he found himself more and more interested in her and excited by their future prospects. Then he discovered that her email address was the same as his father’s.

By that point, he and his dad were already planning to go to family therapy to repair their relationship. Before the first session, Morosini printed out this girl’s Facebook profile. In the room, his father started talking about how Morosini was being unreasonable for cutting him out of his life. Morosini remembers looking him dead in the eye, slamming the printout on the table, and asking, “Who’s Becca?”

“It was us hitting that rock bottom in our relationship, but it forced us to confront some of the foundational problems of our relationship and actually caused things between him and I to get a lot better over time, because we had to talk about it,” Morosini says.

Believe it or not, there’s an argument to be made that it’s a good thing this happened. In fact, Morosini may even be grateful. “It’s funny that this moment in my life with him was maybe the saving grace of our relationship, in that it caused things to really break apart. There was no more pretending. We were both able to agree, like, this is very fucked up. And now we have to talk about it. We can’t pretend things are fine between us.”

Morosini and his father have a good relationship today. That might explain why, despite being a proud dad, his father had some misgivings over the idea of this eyebrow-raising period of their journey to healing being the source material for a feature film—hence the whole “my dad asked me to tell you it didn’t [happen]” title card.

In their discussions about this, Morosini says that a major sticking point was ensuring that his father not be portrayed as—or talked about as—estranged. The period that he cut off contact with him came at great cost to his father personally, and he did everything he could to be a part of his life again. (As we know now, perhaps he did too much.)

Of course Morosini remembers finding out about the catfishing, though at that time a decade ago, he wasn’t sure if the phenomenon was even well-known enough for him to have that vocabulary. He was embarrassed and incredibly angry. He’s told very few people about it over the years.

“I remember one time my dad picked me up from camp when I was a little kid,” he says. “He had given himself a haircut, and it just looked completely insane. I just remember walking ahead of him and being so embarrassed by him. That’s the feeling the event gave me.”

Despite things eventually working out, I Love My Dad is careful to spotlight how absolutely not OK everything his dad did was. The characters in the film who learn about it react appropriately, the same way that you or I would, which is to say they are revolted, furious, and concerned for the boy’s well-being. It takes care to show that, especially as the ruse escalates, his father is tortured by it and conflicted every step of the way.

“I think the movie is about that period in your life when you realize your parents aren’t perfect, and you kind of hate them for it,” Morosini says. “Then you ultimately come around and you realize, oh, I’m not perfect either. They’re human. I’m human. Maybe there’s a way for us to connect with each other. I love my dad. This is really a celebration of how complicated our relationship has been. It’s a celebration of trying to forgive the people and, when it feels like there’s no path forward, trying to find a way toward one.”



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