Movies are fabrications in every sense. If a scene takes place in a house, everything from the wallpaper, pictures, style of plates, and how many plants, if any, are decided by the production design team. Occasionally the script might call for specific props with which the characters must interact. Therefore, everything seen on-screen says something about the characters, the world they inhabit, or both. The same basic idea can be applied to costuming as well. It is an interesting case study than to see a movie in which almost all of the characterization comes from the costumes and design work, not from the writing.
Pin Cushion follows Lyn (Joanna Scanlan) and her daughter Iona (Lily Newmark) as they move to a new town. They hope this change of scenery will offer a chance for a more fulfilling life. Lyn suffers from kyphosis (the medically accurate term for having a hunch in one’s back), so society at large shuns her. This makes Iona her only friend and the two are quite close.
However, as Iona integrates herself with her new schoolmates, an ever-present chasm between mother and daughter grows even more so. See, Keeley (Sacha Cordy-Nice), the most headstrong of the young ladies, leads Iona towards her worst vices. Keeley plays nice mostly to put the new girl down and laugh at all the things she doesn’t know. As Lyn desperately tries to make friends with their new neighbors, Iona begins drinking excessively, sneaking out to see boys, and playing games of a morally dubious nature. Will the cruelty of the world tear this family apart? Or can their bond bring them back to the light?
Deborah Haywood makes her feature-length debut with Pin Cushion, as both director and writer. Her style is understated but packs a wallop. The vibrant pinks and blues from Lyn and Iona’s costumes at the beginning give way to drab greys and dark blacks as the story’s heavier moments emerge. After moving to the new town, the mother dons a cat hat, and they both wear pastel colored knitted sweaters. Later in the movie, Lyn sits sulking in a heavy, grey sweater, hoping to have gone out, but shunned. Iona runs away crying after crashing a high school party, as she and Keeley are now not friends. She is in darker colors and engulfed in shadows.
“…Lyn suffers from…having a hunch in one’s back, so society at large shuns her.”
This use of color is an excellent way to visualize the character’s emotional state from scene to scene; same goes for the production design. Iona throws a party, and as her friends drink more and more, they become reckless. One of them accidentally sits on the pet bird, killing it. Most of them wind up knocking up the baubles her mom collects onto the tile floor. By the end of the film, the abode resembles more of a tomb than living quarters.
Haywood’s strengths as a director don’t translate to her writing abilities. Pin Cushion is about cruelty above all else, to the exclusion of characterizations. The very last scene of the movie sees Iona staying over at a friend’s house. This person is a rather prominent supporting character, appearing in several significant sequences and being the only real friend of Iona’s throughout the film. Yet, as this scene played out, the realization that I didn’t know her name dawned on me. She’s one of the hangers-on to Keeley’s queen bee, but there are times where she seems to hate that they are friends. There’s everything known about this character.
Keeley is mean, says hateful things, and uses just about anyone that enters her sphere. Why though? Yes, in real life people who are spiteful and hateful for no real reason do exist, but that doesn’t make for compelling drama. Then there are the two friends, always to either side of Keeley. They exist and do little else.
This lack of clarity of character extends to Lyn and Iona as well. Those destroyed statues from the party are of cats. In the beginning, after taking a brief stroll of the town to get the lay of the land and a few groceries, they stop by a pet shop to wave at the kittens in the window. Plus, remember, Lyn is wearing a cat hat. So, obsessed with cats but she owns a bird.
“…exceptionally well acted, with emotive directing and production and costume design that compliment the characters’ arcs…”
Anne (Isy Suttie) invites Lyn to a small group about social interaction and how to be more assertive. During an exercise with the rudest person Lyn has met, this lady admits to being utterly disgusted by Lyn’s appearance. In response, Lyn growls at her. She doesn’t growl, bark, meow, moo, or make any other animal noises at any other point. It is such an odd moment. Yes, that lady says hurtful things, and that no one stands up to Lyn’s defense is even worse, but this is beyond the pale weird. After the fact, Anne disinvites Lyn, and clearly, Anne has no (or little) issue with how Lyn looks or dresses, so it is solely because she behaves in such a manner. A manner existing only in that sequence.
At least there is a tragic backstory for Lyn and why she chose to have Iona. It is not explored enough, but it does exist. Iona has no discernible traits of her, aside from what the talented Newmark brings to the table, but she has the least amount of material to work with out of everyone. Iona’s likes and dislikes all begin and end at nothing. As written, this person only gets talked down to and made of fun, with any hopes or dreams she may have never being so much as hinted at, much less discussed.
Pin Cushion is exceptionally well acted, with emotive directing and production and costume design that compliment the characters’ arcs throughout. However, all that good is in service of a story that is so focused on the cruel acts on display that it forgets one crucial rule: the audience will only care if they can relate to the characters.
Pin Cushion (2018) Directed and written by Deborah Haywood. Starring Lily Newmark, Joanna Scanlan, Loris Scarpa, Sacha Cordy-Nice, Bethany Antonia, Saskia Paige-Martin.
5 Gummi Bears (out of 10)