When Joshua Seftel , an award-winning indie filmmaker and a nice Jewish boy, casts around for a project, he looks for a subject that will help him either repair the world (his 1992 documentary about Romanian orphans spurred thousands of adoptions); or make people laugh (his 2008 film, “War, Inc.,” satirized the outsourcing of war); or guarantee a payday (Seftel has directed commercial work for Liberty Mutual, among others).
Minus the moneymaking, Seftel’s decision to film conversations with his 76-year-old mom fell right in his sweet spot. “My dad passed away [in 2009], and my sisters and I worried that she was isolated,” said Seftel, a Tufts University graduate and former longtime Somerville resident, whose work has appeared on PBS, HBO, A&E, Bravo, and Showtime.
“She wasn’t e-mailing, or using her computer. We bought her an iPad, but everyone was doubtful she would take to it. So I went down to Florida [from New York] and taught her how to use it. We started talking on FaceTime, which she calls Facelift, and she loved it.”
The rest is, if not quite history, at least a series of YouTube shorts that so far number 25. Pat Seftel, a retired social worker and grandmother of four, uses her two minutes of fame to weigh in on whatever’s trending on Twitter. “It doesn’t look clean,” she said of Red Sox first baseman Mike Napoli’s beard. Her assessment of “Fifty Shades of Grey”? “It really is a love story, but he’s got his mental health problems, although don’t we all?” On celebrity baby-naming madness: “I don’t know if they realize the child is going to be called Apple when they’re 50 years old,” she said of Gwyneth Paltrow’s daughter. “It’s OK when they’re 2.”
As you might imagine, the elder Seftel is enjoying the collaboration. “It’s not often that people want to know what older people think,” she said from her condo-studio in Sarasota. Audiences at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline have been equally enthusiastic. When the theater ran episodes in October, as part of a promotion for the Boston Jewish Film Festival, they were so popular that the Coolidge extended Pat’s run through November.
“She’s a likable character,” said Anne Continelli, the theater’s post-production manager and shorts curator. “She’s funny, but you are not laughing at her, although you are certainly laughing at times at her lack of technical prowess — but isn’t that all of our parents?” (In a bit that will feel particularly familiar to adult children everywhere, Pat struggles to get her whole face on the screen. “My chin is not in it,” she tells her son.)
At a recent matinee, heavy on retirees, both mother and son earned rave reviews. “She’s adorable,” said Wendy Carton, a retired school administrator.
“He’s trying to show the world this woman has a rich personality,” said Joe Rothstein, a retired schoolteacher.
Seftel’s “My Mom on Movies” series fits into what might be known as the Mom genre, a category that takes advantage of a performer’s biggest fan — often with mom happy to throw herself under the bus if it means a book deal or a ratings boost. New York comedian Amy Borkowsky has made an entire career out of routines taken from the messages her overprotective mother left on her answering machine. “Amila,” Borkowsky quotes her mom in one bit, “I’m having second thoughts about that little palm-size computer that you bought. You could swallow it and, God forbid, choke.”
Jimmy Fallon used his mom to practice his interviewing skills — and then got mileage out of her behavior on “Fresh Air’’ with Terry Gross. “She was an awful guest,” he told the NPR host. “She kept wanting to cut to a clip. And we have no clip. She’s not in a movie. She’s my mother.”
David Letterman’s 92-year-old mom has been such a frequent guest on her son’s show that she has developed a following of her own and a theory on her popularity. “The positive response to my appearances on David’s show has nothing to do with my amateur abilities as a broadcaster,” Dorothy Mengering once said. “People enjoy seeing a mother and son together. It’s that simple.”
As for Joshua’s mom, her genius lies in her dead-on assessments, which are delivered without the self-satisfaction or intentional snarkiness that usually accompany such commentary. Her observations on the Miley Cyrus twerking controversy are typical of her style. “It seems like a lot of people do it,” Pat says of Cyrus’s lewd dance at the Video Music Awards in August, “but that wasn’t the time and the place to do it, in those clothes. She’s pretty talented. She doesn’t have to do that to be noticed.”
A particularly touching episode starts with a discussion of the actor Bradley Cooper , and how he and his mom started living together after Cooper’s dad died. “How would you like it if I lived with you?” Seftel asks his mother.
“I’d love it,” she said, oozing joy at the thought. “I like you and I miss you. But I don’t know if it would be so good for you. I’d probably drive you a little crazy.” When Seftel asks his mother to imagine a typical day if the two were roommates, it seems as if she’s already thought about it. “Visit people,” she said, “go to a museum.”
Seftel, 45, says he likes working with his mom in part because he’s learning things about her that he never knew. “I found out that she used to dance on ‘American Bandstand,’ ” he said. “And she’s definitely less of a diva than some celebrities, but I have noticed since the early episodes that she’s gotten a little more polished.”
If there’s one issue, it’s getting time on her schedule. “My mom is hard to book,” Seftel said, sounding like every parent who has ever failed at getting a modern grandma to baby-sit. “She has plans every day. Sometimes two or three times a day.”
Despite critical acclaim, Pat Seftel has yet to become a YouTube sensation, and she’s hardly looking for fame, but as her son pointed out, “now she has this platform where she’s reaching thousands of people. For someone who is 76 and lives in a retirement community to have that kind of reach — it’s amazing.”