Is there anything scarier than being truly alone in the world? Forget blood and guts, the undead and the living dead. How terrified would you be if your life fell apart, and there wasn’t a single person for you to talk to or embrace? Writer and director Deborah Haywood’s feature-length debut, “Pin Cushion,” rethinks the horror genre with the trauma and suspense of loneliness, rather than gore or supernatural activity. Iona (Lily Newmark) and her mother Lyn (Joanna Scanlan) move to a new town with the naive excitement of a tropey horror movie couple moving into a house that’s clearly haunted. The highly stylized film displays a deceivingly cutesy exterior, stuffed with baby animals and pink everything, but adeptly invites an intimate glance into the most horrifying chambers of human consciousness.
Haywood makes no effort to soften the trauma of teenage girlhood, imbuing her film with an exhilarating realism most high school movies lack. Like last year’s “Lady Bird,” Deborah Haywood’s debut depicts a sometimes tender, sometimes caustic mother-daughter relationship. Unlike in “Lady Bird,” the injuries that these women inflict on each other can’t be healed with a hot pink cast or a phone call. “Pin Cushion” takes what we thought was a comfortingly permanent bond and irreparably tears it apart, like someone in a slasher film might tear a limb off a body.
Critics have also compared “Pin Cushion” to the 1988 classic, “Heathers,” because they’re both dark high school movies about likeably uncool girls who infiltrate the villainous realm of popularity. Blissfully detached from reality with too-clever dialogue and too-cute boys, “Heathers” isn’t too upsetting, while the ugliest parts of “Pin Cushion” are hauntingly familiar, prompting painful introspection. Where “Heathers” elicits a flustered scoff in response to the film’s bizarre premise, “Pin Cushion” elicits searing pain in response to the unbearable sadness of the human condition.
“Pin Cushion” could feel indulgent in its own trauma if it weren’t so faithfully grounded in reality. On the surface, the film twinkles with otherworldly horror and fantasy. Upon closer inspection, Haywood simply depicts the strange magic of real life—her life, specifically. Though “Pin Cushion” feels like it came from the depths of Haywood’s twisted imagination, it’s actually an intensely personal film.
Though world-building often suffuses films with fantasy, Haywood demonstrates meticulous attention to detail by building Lyn’s world to show, in a way that’s hauntingly true to life, how Lyn yearns for escapism from the gritty truth of the real world. Scanlan portrays Lyn dissociatiating from adult life as she decorates their home with mounds of pink stuffed animals and rows of porcelain figurines. The kitsch even pervades the dining room with breakfast fritters shaped like smiley faces, hard-boiled eggs with Sharpie eyelashes, and looped Krazy straws for maximum tea-drinking enjoyment. Lyn constructs this cushy fortress of best friendship to protect against the real world, which rejects and bullies her, and labels her “the village idiot.” Scanlan winces a little with every movement to animate the deep injuries of a woman who’s lived a long life of repeated slaps in the face.
Haywood embellishes the plot of “Pin Cushion” with Iona’s fantasies, stretching the capabilities of the film medium by portraying rich pockets of teenage consciousness often unexplored on the big screen. Newmark gingerly portrays Iona buzzing with delight as she imagines herself throwing parties decorated with painstakingly arranged fruits, flowers, and trinkets reminiscent of a glowing Audrey Flack painting, only to drown in silent horror when she discovers that teenager parties consist of vomit, regrets, and crusty boys. Brought to life with subtly gorgeous acting, visual ornaments communicate what the camera can’t on its own. CGI glitter emanates from Iona’s face after she gets her first makeover, and a blurry kaleidoscope lens multiplies her image while she experiences her first orgasm, via electric toothbrush.
Ghosts in “Pin Cushion” take the form of fluffy white cats, violently yanking on heartstrings with comforting purrs to soften the sorrow of a mean world. Haywood’s masterpiece gleams with a potent blend of cuteness and wretchedness true to teenage girlhood, establishing legitimate artistic value of what could have been an easily dismissed high school movie.
—Staff writer Danielle Eisenman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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