Offbeat coming-of-age tale wins $10K movie-pitch competition

"Picture the biggest dork you can imagine. That's Irene, our hero," recounts Pat Mills, whose quirky proposal for an offbeat coming-of-age tale won Telefilm Canada's annual Pitch This! competition at the Toronto International Film Festival Tuesday.

"Picture the biggest dork you can imagine. That's Irene, our hero," recounts Pat Mills, whose quirky proposal for an offbeat coming-of-age tale won Telefilm Canada's annual Pitch This! competition at the Toronto International Film Festival Tuesday.

"I know it sounds like such a cliché, but it is such an honour to be selected for this," he told CBC News following a well-attended lunch hour ceremony packed with producers, writers, directors and other industry professionals.

Mills, a Toronto-based, Ottawa-born filmmaker, won $10,000 to assist with the development of his feature film proposal Don't Talk to Irene — a tale of a 12-year-old small-town outcast who befriends an elderly new neighbour hiding an advanced illness.

"I'm really obsessed with my own childhood, because it was really fun, but it was actually a bit heartbreaking," Mills said. "I feel like those elements make for a really compelling story."

Mills lost his grandparents — one of whom suffered from a serious disease — early in his life.

"I spent a lot of time in retirement homes and hospitals when I was a kid," he said.

He got a chance to spend time with many older people "with a lot of energy" and didn't have "a typical grandparent and [grand]child relationship," Mills said.

Filmmaker Pat Mills won the $10,000 Telefilm Pitch This! competition at the Toronto International Film Festival on Tuesday. ((Jessica Wong/CBC))

Though he initially started filming the story as a short film, he always had it in his head as a feature, Mills said.

With help from two of the Pitch This! coaches — producer Anne Carey and writer Howie Wiseman — Mills was able to "beef up" his story into feature-length shape.

"I have friends who pitched last year and didn't win, but they got developement money," Mills said. "[Becoming a finalist] really just helps, so I was thrilled to get accepted. Winning is just icing on the cake."

The international panel of industry representatives who judged this year's competition also gave an honorary mention to another of this year's six finalists, Jeff Barnaby, for his feature proposal Blood Quantum — a classic zombie tale set on a Mi'kmaq reserve.

The Quebec-born filmmaker calls the film "an allegory for the subjugation of Native people."

Telefilm's annual Pitch This! competition, now in its ninth edition, accepts feature film proposals from across the country. A panel whittles the inital applications into a short-list of about six finalists, who are then assigned coaches to help them hone their ideas before the live competition.

Past Pitch This! winners who went on to production and theatrical release include Chaz Thorne's Poor Boy's Game, directed by Clement Virgo, and Richie Mehta's Amal.