Coming of age stories are frequently awkward, often painful, but ultimately, usually, hopeful. Pin Cushion is one of those rare coming of age stories that is not really invested in perpetuating the myth that oddballs and weirdoes emerge from adolescence as interesting and functional adults. It is instead preoccupied with the ways that trauma passes between generations, and that no amount of parental love and acceptance can make up for a lack of same from peers. In Pin Cushion, bullying is not the métier of the playground, but is a cycle that perpetuates into adulthood, and bullies don’t always get their comeuppance (or, if they do, it’s just more trauma for the pile). Pin Cushion’s image of adolescence is a candy-colored darkness.
The film opens with a mother-daughter pair relocating to a new town in Not London, England. Mother Lyn (Joanna Scanlan) and daughter Iona (Lily Newmark) are excited to be starting over, but it is immediately clear that they struggle wherever they go. Lyn has a hunchback and a shuffling gate that alienates her from others, and Iona, though on the cusp of growing into a beautiful young woman, is awkward and shy. They are co-dependent and each other’s sole friend, and they live in a manufactured happiness with their bright pink home, wacky hats, porcelain figurines, and parakeet Budgie. They refer to one another as “Dafty One” and “Dafty Two”, and Iona both basks in and is stifled by Lyn’s love in a way that is destined to doom them both.
That doom is precipitated by the local Heathers, led by mean teen queen Keeley (Sacha Cordy-Nice). It is patently obvious Iona is booth too sweet and too naïve to handle Keeley and her psychological torture, but Iona is also a girl in desperate need of friends her own age and acceptance from her peers. She hits it off with a local boy, Daz (Loris Scarpa), and soon enough is palling around with Keeley and the Heathers and making decisions you wish you could stop her making. Some are harmless, such as learning to apply lipstick—a milestone marked with confetti—but others are not, as Keeley’s demands begin pushing Iona to do increasingly sexual things for the sole purpose of humiliating her. Meanwhile, Lyn’s attempts to befriend the local moms isn’t going any better as she experiences the cruel adult version of the bullying her daughter is experiencing.
Pin Cushion is the feature film debut of writer/director Deborah Haywood, who manages the delicate tone of her work precisely. Despite the whimsical colors of the Dafties home and wardrobes, this is a film that gets increasingly darker as it goes on, and there is also a fantastical element as both Lyn and Iona have rich inner lives. But the worse their actual lives get, the more elaborate their fantasies become, until the juxtaposition of how they want things to be and how they actually are is unbearable. Lyn and Iona are both perfectly nice people not out to hurt anyone, and yet they both suffer relentlessly. A late turn toward unspeakable cruelty might turn some people off because the message of Pin Cushion is less “it gets better” and more “you have to learn to survive this because it never really goes away”.
In the pantheon of coming of age stories, Pin Cushion is definitely one of the darker entries. It’s not entirely hopeless, as there is a grace note at the end that Iona will emerge, if not unscathed, then at least intact from Keeley’s brutalizing. It’s a confident debut from Haywood and features two noteworthy performances from Scanlan and Newmark, and offers a thorough investigation of growing up unpopular and exploited. Pin Cushion has some moments of pure joy, but mostly it’s dark, weird, uncomfortable, sad, and occasionally dangerous. Not unlike actual adolescence, really.
Pin Cushion is in select theaters and is available on demand from August 7.