SMILF. Showtime. Sunday, November 5.
If you're making short films these days, it's all about vision and authenticity and postmodernism rather than the ancient and discredited concept of quality. So Showtime's SMILF (the first S is for "single"; you guess the rest), which originated as a popular film-festival short, has to be presented as a chronicle of the actual life of producer-star Frankie Shaw. This seems, well, unlikely.
SMILF's lead character, Bridgette, is a gritty South Boston actress wannabe who can hold her own in pickup basketball with the neighbor guys. She lives in a scruffy one-room apartment with her son by an amiable but utterly jobless recovering drunk. The only thing emptier than her fridge is the credit remaining on her charge cards.
This doesn't sound a great deal like Frankie Shaw, who went to Milton and Barnard and was already scoring roles in shows like Law & Order: Criminal Intent while she was a college student. I have no idea if Mark Webber, the father of her child, had a drinking problem, but he certainly hasn't had an employment problem: He's an actor with over 70 screen credits in the past 19 years.
A little resume puffery by Shaw is not a big deal. (Though only in Hollywood does it take the form of slumming down your actual life.) What makes it noteworthy in this case is there's so much else about SMILF that that doesn't add up. Beneath that indy-film facade of grainy candor is a big pile of canny Hollywood calculation.
Start with the title, which is supposed to be ironic, because no one is signing onto the "ILF" part of it—Bridgette's most intimate relationship is with a purple vibrator. Though Bridgette is lithe, pretty and—most importantly—singularly undiscriminating in her quest for a sexual partner, she hasn't hooked up once in the months since splitting with her boyfriend. Prospective pickups flee from the sight of her child as if he's a flea-infested vermin in a time of plague.
Which invites the question, "On which planet?" I understand male commitment phobia, but that fear's about commitment, not no-strings-attached offers of quickies from a delectably naked woman standing two feet away.
Then there's Bridgette's puzzling timeline. She acts like a new mom jittery about her sexual allure—her gynecologist's advice to do kegels triggers the panicked response, "Why? Did you see something up there?" But her little boy is a toddler, 2 or 3 years old. It seems like Shaw wanted some sexual paranoia wisecracks but not the fidgety concept of a horny mom barely removed from the delivery room.
But, despite these conceptual weaknesses—some of which may have been forced on Shaw by suits nervous the instincts of a young, first-time producer, SMILF has a considerable number of merits. Shaw has created a memorable set of characters and assembled an estimable cast to play them.
Chief among them is Connie Britton (Nashville, Friday Night Lights) as Ally, the wealthy mom who pays Bridgette to tutor her aimless teenagers. But the fact that Ally pretends to her family that she's going to yoga exercises, then hides out wolfing down prodigious piles of junk food punctuated by terrifying crying jags suggests her life is more complicated than it appears.
Another damaged-goods character is Tutu (startlingly well-played by Rosie O'Donnell), Bridgette's weatherbeaten mom, who appears to have taken a licking from life and is barely ticking. She listens to tape's of Frank McCourt's brutal memoir Angela's Ashes to cheer herself up.
The best of all is Bridgette, loving the daylights out of her child even as she resents the restrictions he's imposed on her life, affectionately shielding Ally's kids even as she winces at the knowledge of what she could do with their opportunities.
Shaw has previously demonstrated her ability to illuminate and even draw cheer from desolation, perhaps most vividly as a doomed junkie in Mr. Robot, but never on a canvas this big. She's an eyeful, even when she's scuffed up by Hollywood contrivance.