Patton Oswalt and James Morosini star in this hilarious and tender display of human vulnerability.

Relationships are complicated. This is just a fact of life, a fact of being human, and certainly a fact of being alive in a day and age where there are infinitely more ways to connect with people in increasingly creative ways. Add on top of that elements of family and people’s own flawed, messy brains, and things get exponentially sticky fast. But isolation is also all that much more painful. So how do you mend relationships with people you love that seem irrevocably strained and broken due to your own actions? What else: Catfishing.

James Morosini’s new film I Love My Dad, which he also wrote and stars in and which debuted at SXSW, explores imperfect methods for repairing fractured relationships. It melds a lot of ideas and observations about life and connection in the 2020s, specifically how technology both creates avenues towards and builds walls around true communication. At its core is a truly unquestionable violation of trust, an act that causes violent outbursts of emotion from anyone who learns of it. But the core sympathy lies in how that need for connections bind us, and how out of desperate loneliness our acts of love become acts of harm. Again, it’s complicated.

The center of the story is the relationship between Franklin (Morosini) and his dad Chuck (Patton Oswalt, in maybe a career-best performance). As he exits from a suicide survivors therapy group, Franklin decides one step for a healthier life is to build better boundaries. One such boundary is to block his chronically absent and excuse-laden father on his phone. Chuck, feeling the deeply wounded pain of being cut off from his only son, desperately searches for a means to remain connected. He spoofs the Facebook account of a local waitress Becca (Claudia Sulewksi) and begins an online romance with his own son.

The rest of the film plays out this frankly horrific gambit to its various conclusions, both the squirm-inducing interplay of play-acting at romancing your own son, as well as the actual meaningful conversations that arise. Chuck is an inherently selfish person who seeks relationships primarily to fill his own sense of satisfaction and connection. But he does get to know his son better and also uses the setup as a means to give Franklin much needed validation as he comes out of a depressive state.

All of this could be merely an easy recipe for cringe-based comedy, and I Love My Dad certainly isn’t afraid to shy away from some especially uncomfortable interactions. But there are two factors that elevate the movie from simply one long, cheap gross-out gag to something that connects to a greater emotional core. One tool is Oswalt himself, whose depiction of disconnected and adrift Chuck pulls at a deep well of sympathy and sadness that has been innate in him for a while but comes to full bear here. His actions are indefensible, but it is hard to not feel some sympathy for him when he has that central pain behind his eyes and his body sags with the weight and cost of his life choices. He sees no other way forward, and he refuses to let go of his son.

The second element that elevates the film is its depiction of online relationships. Texting in film is always a tricky thing to depict well and emotionally. Morosini’s choice to not depict Franklin’s conversations with “Becca” as merely text on the screen, but instead as real-world, face-to-face conversations, taps into a central part of what makes text-based online romance so intoxicating: it feels like this elevated form of real life, not just words on a screen. Online romance can tap into a well of imagination, allowing you to express yourself in ways that are distant from your real-world self. It is liberating, exciting, and deeply romantic. It is so much easier to become ceaselessly obsessed with someone if they exist as an ideal in your mind, not as an actual person before you with all those complications. You are almost as in love with the idea of being in love as you are with the actual person. And on Chuck’s side, he is getting adoring attention from his son, the thing he most longed for—granted, through a less than ideal circumstance. I Love My Dad is the most honest and compelling depiction of online communication in any film I have ever seen, and Morosini as director, writer, and actor hits precisely the tenor the material demands.

The rest of the cast is rounded out with some comedy ringers in Lil Rey Howery and Rachel Dratch as Chuck’s office friend and romance, respectively. Both are good sounding boards for Oswalt to play against, and allow other characters to witness Chuck’s actions and tell him precisely how messed up they are. The film never fully exonerates him, or excuses him for doing this, and the potential outcomes become potentially harrowing towards the end, as the lie comes closer and closer to being exposed.

At its core, I Love My Dad is a film that probes at the profound need to feel loved in all of us and the lengths we are willing to go to in order to find that love. Relationships are complicated, but living in isolation is unbearable, especially from those whom we care about the most. By having both sympathy and a sense of awareness of both Franklin and Chuck’s needs, Morosini provides a portrait of wounded people looking for something to mend what seems cracked at the very foundation. As Chuck yells at one point, “Whatever it takes!” His desperation is cathartic and universal. We need each other, and sometimes we act recklessly to protect that. Through whatever it takes.

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