Screen Time: 95%
Age: 13 years old
Directed: Denie Pentecost
Genre: Drama, Short
Georgie, 12, is growing up in Sydney’s Western suburbs in the 1970’s. She’s a tomboy, creative, and a dreamer; but always lives just outside herself and never quite in the present. She creates a magical underwater world to escape paternal abuse, and dreams of sharing this magical world, and the secret beneath it, with her best friend, Lisa. Lisa is in many ways Georgie’s opposite: quieter, girlish, at home in her world; but she realizes that Georgie is hiding some silent hurt, and is willing to do anything for her.
Inside the pain of a 12-year-old
Swimming, hot tin roofs, dancing with your best friend in your bedroom, sexual abuse. When Australian filmmaker Denie Pentecost began work on a script for Sexy Thing, she says, she wanted to tell a story from the point of view of a child. Her starting point was not abuse as an issue, but the character of 12-year-old Georgie, a girl who could easily be mistaken for a boy.
"It was always about Georgie and once I started looking into her character, it was obvious," says Pentecost. "The whole pain that she had - what was that from? When I realised it was abuse, I drew on lots of people that I knew who had been affected by that. But I always wanted that whole confusion - because she does love her dad and he obviously loves her."
Sexy Thing was one of 10 short films in this year's Cannes competition for short films, selected from 3000 submitted from around the world. That was the goal, says Pentecost; a former Australian soccer player, she talks a good deal about goals. Unlike most filmmakers, she is quite frank about the fact that she wants to win that Palme d'Or. She may not be in the midfield any more, but she is as competitive as ever.
Pentecost, 36, grew up in Mt Druitt, in the west of Sydney. "I'm a westie," she says cheerfully. "Then we moved to Penrith, slightly up the scale." She played representative soccer from the age of 14, playing around the world and in one World Cup competition. "I always knew I had to do that first, because you can't play soccer when you're 36," she says. She has nothing to do with sport now; film and football didn't mix. "I miss it, but it's so different. Different people, a different way of living. Although there are similarities too: they are both creative, both team games."
She was 27 by the time she made the switch: too old, she reasoned, to get a place in a film school. She had managed to fit in three years at art school, studying sculpture and photography. "So I just rang and rang and finally someone gave me a job as an assistant stand-by props. So for six years I've done that, art department stuff. I set myself little goals - I worked on The Matrix and Mission Impossible, so I reached those goals - but I thought, you're still not doing your directing thing. Meanwhile, I had this script."
The hardest part of making Sexy Thing was finding the right girl. "We spent eight months looking for Georgie," says Pentecost. "I looked at schools and shopping malls - I thought I was going to get arrested - and at sporting clubs, because she had to be able to swim well. She needed to have that physicality as well, a tomboy thing going on. I was also aware that, at 12, she would be aware of what those things mean."
Abused girls, says Pentecost, often try to make themselves look as sexually unattractive as possible. "Some of them go more sexual, some go less. And then there was her confusion with her own sexuality with her friend, so it all becomes quite blurred." Eventually she found the remarkable Hanna Mangan-Lawrence, who was 14 but looked younger, was studying at Newtown Performing Arts school and knew how to read a script, who was an elite gymnast and swam like a fish.
Sexy Thing did not win the Palme D'Or, but it got plenty of praise and attention. Pentecost, meanwhile, began fretting that she was not meeting the right people, frittering away her week in town with the big money that was her one chance to find backing for the feature that is her next goal. "And then you think, well, you meet who you meet and you can only do what you can do. You get to come to Cannes with your first film and that was always the goal - so just enjoy it."
There will be no lightening up for her feature debut, either. "It's about a woman who can't feel anything for herself, so she uses people like drugs - just goes through them until the high wears off. It's about her search for her inner pain, I guess." More inner pain! "A different pain. But there's always going to be pain!" she says with a smile. "That's what I'm interested in, I guess."