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Short Films in Focus: SMILF

When I first saw Frankie Shaw’s short film “SMILF” a couple years ago, it seemed to me like one of those perfect examples of a short destined to become a feature or series. On its own, it is incredibly charming, confident and truthful, but at only nine and a half minutes, there is much more to explore. Two years later and Shaw’s film is now enjoying its first season as a half-hour show on Showtime. She returns to play the single mom, Bridgette Bird, but now the short has been expanded from the three-character piece to a full ensemble, without losing the flavor of the proof-of-concept short.

It’s a simple, familiar concept, of course. In the short, Bridgette, a twenty-something single mom, occupies a small studio apartment with her infant son, Larry. They lay in bed together and playfully interact with one another. One day, after reading an alarming article on how women’s bodies change after giving birth, she decides to call on an old friend, Dan (“Silicon Valley”’s Thomas Middleditch), to come over for an old-time tryst. Mainly, she wants to know from him if her body feels different than it did before she had a kid. He comes over and they awkwardly go through the motions of having sex, all while the kid is hiding in the bed (unbeknownst to him).

Shaw wrote, produced and directed the film as well and she clearly has an interest in presenting these situations with as much honesty as possible. She is fearless in front of the cameras and she asks the same from her co-stars, as evidenced by the series. This short film is re-created in the pilot episode and this time, there is as much full frontal male nudity as there is female. The nudity in both the short and the series is presented in a purposely mundane way, so as to remove any shock value or titillation that it would otherwise have. The film also ends in a way that makes it more satisfying as an individual piece. The series version of the ending has more weight, but it also has the luxury of continuing the story well into the future.

Shaw has smartly figured out that a short should be more than just a practice piece. It should stand on its own and “SMILF” clearly does. I have only seen the first two episodes of the show, but I would easily binge-watch it. I also highly recommend Shaw’s follow-up short, the biting and timely satire, "Too Legit."

Q&A with star/writer/director Frankie Shaw

So, how did this go from an award-winning short film to a series for Showtime?

So the short was a scene from a pilot I wrote.  It was always intended to be a TV show and the short was a proof of concept. So when the short worked on its own and went to Sundance and won an award, in turn it helped sell it to Showtime as a show. Then we spent a year developing it with Showtime and fleshing out the world. I shot the pilot the fall of 2016 and got the pickup for the series in 2017.

What inspired the project as a whole?

When my son was a toddler, we moved every 3 months for 2 years. Despite the many struggles we found ourself in funny situations that I thought could make good fodder for a TV show.

Was it hard to cast and develop a rapport with the child (in the short)?

I saw the child in the short with her mom walking in the streets of Silverlake, and I asked if she would allow her child to be in the short. Luckily the mom said yes. The child in my short playing the son is actually a girl, Luna, which turned out to be the same thing in the series with our twins that play Larry. They are both girls. Originally the kid was supposed to be asleep the whole time, but Luna didn’t want to be asleep so most of what we caught on film was me trying to get her to go to sleep.

Thomas Middleditch is an interesting choice to play Dan. How did he get involved with the project?

Thomas and I did a movie together a couple of years ago and had remained friends. We had great work chemistry so he was my first choice to play Dan.

The short does such a good job of depicting the awkwardness that comes with any sex scenario and the series has been carrying that on very successfully. Is that a challenge for you, either as a writer, director or actor (or all three)?

The sex scenes are some of the most fun scenes to write, shoot and act. We all laugh the hardest on set, especially when we were shooting the "tight little dick" scene in the grocery store for the show. It’s all our answer on the patriarchal system of how sex is normally depicted.

What has the response overall been like? I’m guessing you hear from a lot of women who can relate.

Women and men are active on twitter, and it’s been really fun hearing everyone’s response. Just like women like "Breaking Bad," men have also been loving SMILF. I love it when people stop me on the street to tell me how much they are enjoying the show. And yes, people who don’t feel normally represented is rewarding. 

What's next for you?

Writing season two! Who knows what it’s gonna be about.

SMILF from razbe on Vimeo.

Collin Souter

Collin Souter has been reviewing films in Chicago for 14 years, most notably on WGN Radio where he has been a part of the movie review segment every week on The Nick Digilio Show.

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