Deborah Haywood’s fantastic debut feature, PIN CUSHION, puts a glittery gloss over the all-too-real misery that is adolescence. And for good reason: The events and themes depicted in would be too disturbing and haunting to bear in a straight drama. That fairytale construction doesn’t make the film a pleasant viewing experience, but here, a spoonful of sugar does make the bitter, bitter medicine go down at least a bit more easily.
The film centers around the increasingly complicated relationship between young Iona (Lily Newmark) and her frumpy mother, Lyn (Joanna Scanlan), as they move to a new city for what they hope will be a fresh start. We meet the quirky pair as they walk through their drab surroundings clad in eclectic thrift-store clothing, gently admiring the kittens they see in a store window—a sweet, tender moment almost immediately shattered by the jeers of village teenagers mocking Lyn for her hunchback, her crippled leg, and her plain looks.
No, PIN CUSHION is decidedly not a film about transformation and rebirth—Lyn’s new life will unfortunately and unjustly be just as difficult and bleak as the one she’s left behind. Haunted by the specters of sexual abuse, mental illness, loneliness, and bullying, the character has been left enduringly (and endearingly) meek; Iona and her “son,” a parakeet named Budgie, are her only friends. In Lyn, Haywood examines the way women sacrifice themselves for their children and their families, and the way we often find ourselves apologizing (as Lyn does constantly) for our own existence.
Mother and daughter have hunkered down in their incredibly maximalistic charity shoppe–decorated apartment—excellent world-building work by set designer Francesca Massariol and cinematographer Nicola Daley—and imagined infinitely more glamourous, romantic lives for themselves. In one of the film’s more heartbreaking but arresting scenes, we see Lyn dressed to the nines sitting alone on a park bench after dark eating chocolates after she’s told Iona she’s going out for a date—meanwhile, Iona imagines a world for herself where her mother is a beautiful, blonde, vaguely Texan flight attendant ready to whisk her away from her troubles at home and at school.
All of this coddling has left the girlish, innocent Iona wholly unprepared for the misery that awaits her as she heads into her new school. Here, her imaginative inner life spills out into the film’s “real world,” giving the film a buoyant, magical feel as she begins to come out of her shell socially and drift further and further away from her mother. Unfortunately, as Iona soon discovers, when it comes to friendships between teenage girls, there’s a constant pressure to bully or be bullied, and your closest friends can become your biggest enemies literally overnight. The victors are those who show no weakness.
The film’s unmistakably British take on a subject MEAN GIRLS handled so adroitly goes a step further than this, though, showing that bullying isn’t necessarily something we grow out of as we grow older—people who are marked as “different” are often targeted by insecure fellow adults who get an absolute thrill out of being cruel. Or in some cases, they’re preyed upon by self-serving self-help gurus–slash-mediums named Stevie Babes who give them hauntingly bad advice like “There is no death—only transformation” (in exchange for a seminar fee, of course).
Despite its chipped twee veneer, PIN CUSHION ends on a poetic but achingly heart-wrenching note, showing us the real-world consequences of continual bullying and untreated mental health issues. It’s a bit uneven toward the end, but the strong performances by both leads carry the film across the finish line—you can positively see and feel the anguish that lies behind Scanlan character’s big, watery blue eyes, and you wish you could give her character the happy-ever-after ending she deserves.