We go to film festivals to find the stories that follow a different rhythm, one not so easily classified by trends or genre, deemed too difficult to market. These are often the films that affect us most deeply. While far from a traditional genre film, Pin Cushion stands out as a devastating example of this. Deborah Haywood arrives at the 20th annual Boston Underground Film Festival with her feature film debut, a weird, often uncomfortable, and ultimately heartbreaking story about two people seeking connection.
Mother-daughter pair Lyn (Joanna Scanlan) and Iona (Lily Newmark) lead a solitary but happy life that Iona is determined to break from when she transfers schools. With a cute boy to woo and three popular girls to befriend, things seem to be going well, but Lyn’s old-fashioned, paranoid view of the world holds her back. As Iona lies her way into the popular clique at school, and Lyn attempts to befriend their rude neighbor, the two grow apart, but neither are prepared to navigate the world on their own.
The film’s beats—a supermarket meet cute, pretty girls walking in slow motion down hallways—are familiar at first. The quirky atmosphere doesn’t take long to start dipping into banal brutality, though. Haywood understands how to walk the line between awkward endearment and manic tension, and she tips the balance toward the latter with impressive patience. While the film never breaks into the mayhem that certain moments promise, Haywood’s tonal shifts and surreal imagery—especially in the movie's final moments—make one hope that she will tackle a full-fledged horror film at some point in her career.
That being said, Pin Cushion is not a genre movie in the straightforward sense—its rhythm is unfamiliar, sometimes slow or unexpectedly rapid, and its dark moments are more melancholy than macabre. This doesn’t diminish its emotional impact. In fact, Haywood’s unorthodox approach is more effective than many mainstream tragedies. In spite of the off-kilter tone and design, the film always feels human. Joanna Scanlan is heart-wrenchingly vulnerable as Lyn, while Lily Newmark brings a believable, awkward charm to Iona. Their complex dynamic is what grounds the film in reality. The supporting characters are unexpected as well, wicked in mundane ways that make their acts of cruelty all the more painful. This environment isn’t pleasant, and neither are its personalities, but they’re both awfully honest.
Beyond story, the film is quietly accomplished. Through subtle crafting, Haywood creates a charming, cozy ambience tinged with unavoidable sadness. The production design pops with ceruleans and pinks, while the unusual costumes have a lived-in texture. The camerawork and music are simple yet effective in showing us how the characters interact with their anxiety-fueled world. Some of the images retain a direct power that proves Haywood’s skill as a filmmaker. She uses this ability to shock, to tug at our tear glands, but more importantly, she speaks to something true.
With Pin Cushion, what starts as a quirky comedy develops into an uncomfortable, crushing narrative that explores the measures we take to avoid loneliness. Even as Iona and Lyn’s world grows darker, their yearning for connection remains universal, even if it isn’t fully resolved. Haywood’s mostly female cast and crew create an immersive environment in which to explore this theme, while her well-calibrated story delivers the darkest despair alongside surprising notes of hope. Haywood reminds us that, no matter how strange or lost one may be, our emotional landscape is the same, and sometimes unusual packaging can deliver the most memorable impact.
Movie Score: 3.5/5
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Trailer via Screen Anarchy: