'Your school years are the best of your life' is something people who aren't currently attending school love to say. And sure, not having to pay rent or a mortgage, not having the responsibility of a job and not having to worry about whether the milk in the fridge is off and whether you need to buy some more on your way home, is quite nice.
Yet there's a tendency for most adults to gloss over our school days as 'not that bad'. It was bad sure, but it wasn't that bad. You got to see your friends every day, you got in at 9am and left just after 3pm. Sure, most of your evening was spent doing the six lots of homework due for the next day, but it wasn't that bad, right. You got to spend every day with your friends, even though that day you fell out with your best friend and no-one would talk to you for the rest of the week. But that's friendship, right?
Pin Cushion, a first feature from visionary director Deborah Haywood, picks apart teenage-hood, school and bullying as it follows main character Iona (Lily Newmark) through the quagmire of the aforementioned. Through a sea of abuse and slut shaming, Iona bravely sails - alone and alienated - in a world that feels cruel and desperate. Iona and her mother Lyn (Joanna Scanlan) have just moved to a new town, and Iona is enrolled in the local school. Whilst Iona is excited about making friends, Lyn is anxious about her daughter drifting away from her. In their quirky house, filled with Lyn's trinkets and her budgie 'son', the two share everything - including a bed.
Positioned as a fairy-tale, because which teenager hasn't fantasized about another life whilst attempting to navigate secondary school, Iona imagines shimmering scenarios to counteract the bullying that she faces. In one fantasy, her mother is an air hostess, a woman adored by the girls who make her life hell. In another, she imagines that everyone has an evil twin and that's the reason why everyone is being mean to her. Her real life mother is often posited as an evil step-mother character, locking Iona away in her bedroom and away from the rest of the world.
The contrast of this idyllic fairy-tale whereby Iona is either the princess or the hero and is adored by everyone to the realities of her everyday life is, at times, harrowing. Iona’s imagination is full of sparkles, glitter and charm and these things come crashing down around her, it is heart-breaking. The relationship between Iona and Keeley feels so authentic, due to Haywood’s characterisation of how teenage girls can be, that one cannot help but get swept up in Iona’s fantasies too. Equally, Keely and her tribe (all played by relative newcomers to the industry) excel in their roles – giving genuine performances as teenagers who are also trying to survive the school battlefield.
Pin Cushion’s already nuanced commentary on bullying is made even more so by the inclusion of what happens to Iona’s mother throughout the film. We tend to imagine bullying as something which only occurs on the playground or in schools – almost always to younger children, not adults. Lyn struggles to fit in with the adults around her and becomes embroiled in a fight with one of her neighbours who seems intent on making fun of Lyn for being different. When Lyn attends a community group on expressing emotions, it seems as if the adults in the room will come to Lyn’s rescue and assure her that it’s okay to be different and that it’s okay to not know how to stand up for oneself.
Yet there is no refuge for Lyn, just like there isn’t for Iona. The group unceremoniously kick Lyn out - Peep Show’s Isy Suttie tells Lyn that she probably shouldn’t come back and implies that Lyn is to blame for the abuse that she’s on the receiving end of. Scanlon, as Lyn, is superb throughout but nowhere is she more impressive than here. She encompasses Lyn’s pain, grief and traumatic history revealing her to be a truly complex character – the likes of which we rarely get to see onscreen.
There are elements of Pin Cushion which feel slightly rough – certain lines of dialogue come across as stilted or out of place – but on the whole it’s an incredibly accomplished film. Haywood commits entirely to the fantasy elements and isn’t afraid to make bold decisions regarding her characters. Despite its themes, or perhaps in spite of them would be more accurate here, Pin Cushion is also wickedly funny in places. This dark humour helps enormously to break up some of the tensest scenes but never undermines the seriousness of Iona and Lyn’s situations.
Pin Cushion is a fairy-tale with its roots firmly planted in the ground; its reality through a nightmare fantasy lens. The ending is a sharp shock but it also, somehow, implies hope and perhaps a brighter future for Iona.