The premise of DAD AND STEP-DAD is deceptively simple: Dad (Colin Burgess) and Step-Dad (Anthony Oberbeck) take teen son Branson (Brian Fiddyment, in a PEN15-esque casting choice that pays off) on a weekend cabin trip, to be joined by mom Susie (Clare O’Kane) later on. What begins as a thinly veiled dick measuring contest through classic dad tools such as guitars, propane grills and weather apps, is hilariously revealed to be a quiet, desperate plea for human connection coming from both sides. Maybe Dad and Step-Dad have more in common than they have reasons to constantly one up each other.
Tynan DeLong’s feature, based on his 2018 short series of the same name, develops past the point of a College Humor sketch and into a heartwarmingly funny enemies-to-lovers narrative arc between the two dads. What could have easily been a flat, one-note repeat of the same joke over and over becomes a more refined story through its creators’ hours of loving character development, as well as on-set improvisation. Instead of constructing jokes in a way that feels forced or predictable, Burgess and Oberbeck prefer to play off of each other’s energy in a way that creates more spontaneous laughs than a traditional comedy might. Burgess and Oberbeck’s real reactions to the ridiculous things that instinctively come out of their mouths are genuinely organic, making us laugh from our guts rather than from our brains. The cringeworthy pauses are what make the film great. While having the masturbation talk with a deeply uncomfortable Branson, Step-Dad says “Well, there’s sort of a fantasy land where you can explore whatever you want. And that’s okay.” Awkward pause. “Not kids.” Naturally, what follows is an argument between the two leads about whether or not masturbating to animals is considered bestiality.
This only works because of their clear dedication and love for their respective characters who might otherwise be stale– this love can be found both in the art department details, such as a giant arm tattoo, a punk band t-shirt, and in the seemingly effortless way they interact with each other (which any seasoned comic knows actually takes quite a bit of effort). For example, Fiddyment was able to access a kind of authentic inner adolescence that can only be found by someone who listened to a lot of Playboi Carti in preparation. Without a script to follow, the four actors involved all had to truly become their characters; “labor of love” is an apt description here, and their labor paid off.
Of course, the improv-only approach works more in some scenes and less in others. The first thirty minutes of the film are essentially the same joke repeated over and over (the dads are one upping each other, and ultimately are unequipped to face their own incompetence), which is funny for a while, but occasionally grinds to a halt. Luckily, DeLong sticks the landing of the third act with the introduction of Susie bringing the two dads closer together in their shared relationship failures. Some of the best scenes feature Clare O’Kane as the baby mama, a refreshing maternal beacon of light in a sea of testosterone. She makes connecting with Branson look easy where the dads make it look painstakingly difficult, and she does it while still being hilarious. Instead of prying too directly into Branson’s budding sexual desires for fox ladies, as the dads did previously, mom tells him her own weird story of pre-adolescent sexuality involving Beanie Babies, and that she would hate to have a “cheugy,” not-weird kid. O’Kane’s improvised choice to use the word “cheugy” humorously demonstrates how the language of parenting evolves– initially used as a slang word meaning someone who tries too hard to fit in, O’Kane uses it here to comfort Branson in that slightly cringey but sweet way that only moms can pull off.
Somehow bringing more chaotic dad energy than TIM AND ERIC, but certainly a lot more chill than THE ERIC ANDRE SHOW, DAD AND STEP-DAD deserves its place in the fully improvised comedy canon. It looks more expensive than its actual budget, it’s hilarious, and it’s a great encouragement for young people to go out there and make funny stuff with their friends.