Less of a horror movie than a slow motion car wreck of awkwardness and outrage, Deborah Haywood’s Pin Cushion (2017) takes a cruel and intimate look at the ramifications of intergenerational bullying. Subtly evoking DePalma’s Carrie (1976) and the Tina Fey-written Mean Girls (2004), the film explores not only the evolving relationship between mothers and daughters, but also the perilous world of high school female friendships, popularity and the pressure to fit in.
Pin Cushion opens with Lyn (Joanna Scanlan) moving with her daughter Iona (Lily Newmark) to a new town. Lyn is eccentric collector of porcelain figures, cat hats and gaudy interior decor; she’s also clearly a loving mother, but her own issues have made her socially withdrawn and overly protective of Iona. It’s evident that Lyn’s self-consciousness is due, in part, to her physical appearance (she has a hunchback and a limp), but she has developed frustratingly passive coping mechanisms to such an extent that even casual strangers walk all over her. A recurring confrontation with a cheeky blonde neighbour who borrows her ladder and refuses to return may be played for comedy, but there’s an undeniable pathos each time Lyn meekly asks for its return.
Teenage Iona, in comparison, starts off as a bit of a wallflower, but she quickly adapts to her new surroundings, altering her behaviour and appearance once she attracts the attention of the local clique of mean “babes” – Stacie (Saskia Paige Martin), Chelsea (Bethany Antonia) and queen bee Keeley (Saskia Paige Martin). Lying to her mom about her blossoming sexuality, including a new boyfriend Daz (Sacha Cordy-Nice), a desire for make-up and questionable selfies, it is immediately clear that Iona’s attempts to fit in will not only backfire, but put her at odds with her mother.
Haywood’s script makes it evident that Iona’s dark journey of self-discovery is a (subconscious) attempt to distance herself from her mother and avoid the isolationist “us against the world” policy that Lyn has inadvertently adopted. This is most vividly encapsulated in a series of technicolour dream sequences that sees Lyn substituted out for a statuesque blond air stewardess mother figure with a generic posh accent. In these fantasies, Iona has perfect clothes and make-up and the clique of babes fawn over her. Ultimately Iona’s evolution from dowdy to popular to pariah follows a predictable narrative path (one well-trodden by Mean Girls), but Newmark’s alternating fragile, naive and desperate-to-please performance smoothes over some of the familiarity.
The teenage storyline tends to dominate Pin Cushion, particularly in the second half of the film when the gulf between mother and daughter expands in the wake of a disastrous party. This is a bit unfortunate because as good as Newmark is, Scanlan’s work in Pin Cushion is the true revelation.
“It weren’t meant to be like this; we were meant to be a success” Lyn candidly confesses to a group of bitchy women at the mid-way point of the film. She has inadvertently crashed the group’s knitting circle with an outburst of such alarming honestly that I literally gasped aloud. Unsurprisingly, the women do not take kindly to her intrusion, but long after the mortifyingly awkward scene has played out, the painfully earnest way that Scanlan delivered her dialogue remains.
Embodying every one of Lyn’s failed, flailing attempts to integrate into the community in her physical performance, Scanlan has created a character that is morbidly passive, but also so empathetic that you can’t help but root for her. Lyn is, ultimately, a defeated woman, beaten down by decades of abuse, and it is a testament to Scanlan’s performance that I spent nearly the entire film wishing that I could reach into the screen and shake a sense of self-worth into Lyn.
Haywood is sadistic for subverting our expectations that Lyn or Iona will eventually stand up for themselves against their oppressors. Even when the film reaches their individual breaking points, both Iona and Lyn’s capacity to resist fails to play out the way that conventional Hollywood films have conditioned us to expect. Real conflict doesn’t wrap up like a John Hughes or a Tina Fey film; sometimes it plays out like Carrie.
If there’s a complaint to be made about Pin Cushion it is the film’s ending, which hangs on the grim resolution that the film has been teasing. The climax isn’t surprising (although it is devastating), but the denouement is decidedly unrealistic and illogical, leaving the film’s final moments in a lurch. Sure, the suggestion teased by the closing shot is delightful, but the knotty plotting it took to get there doesn’t quite work.
Despite this minor hiccup, I would strongly recommend Pin Cushion. It is most certainly not a horror film, but its focus on the horrors of female relationships (men are notably absent or pawns) makes it an ideal film to screen during the ninth annual Women in Horror Month.
Pin Cushion is playing at the Final Girls Berlin Film Festival on Saturday, Feb 3. For more Anatomy of a Scream coverage of the festival, click here.