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Pin Cushion
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by Jay Seaver

"A reminder that most of us don't have what it takes to be a teen girl."
4 stars

SCREENED AT BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL XX: "Pin Cushion" is a pretty fair "being a teenage girl is brutal" movie, albeit the sort that tends to pile on the cruelty higher than the unique insights, but at least this one doesn't seem particularly impressed with itself for having some particularly witty take. Filmmaker Deborah Haywood seems aware of a certain shabbiness to her setting and characters but winning to embrace it, which can make for a squirmy watch, but appropriately so.

It starts with mother Lyn (Joanna Scanlan) and her teenage daughter Iona (Lily Newmark) looking at a small house in a small village, into which they soon move. They're an exceptionally close pair, with Lyn needing some assistance with day-to-day tasks (she has a hunchback and one leg a bit longer than the other) while Iona has never fit in at school, but that may change - not so much because a nice-seeming boy (Loris Scarpa) takes a shine to her, but because queen bee Keeley (Sacha Cordy-Nice) and her friends Stacie (Sasika Paige Martin) and Chelsea (Bethany Antonia) suddenly pivot from being obviously mean to Iona to bringing her into the group, at least superficially.

That the power dynamics among teenage girls can be incredibly vicious and downright Machiavellian is not exactly a new observation on Haywood's part, nor is the fact that they often continue into adulthood. The specific arc of Iona's new frenemies is familiar - Keeley sees while changing for gym that Iona could actually be a threat if she learned how to talk to people or pay attention to her appearance and decides to either co-opt this or set Iona up for a fall - as is the obvious parallel of Lyn being shut out of the somewhat on-the-nose "Friendship Circle" at the community center. There's interesting moments to be found nevertheless, from an intriguingly candid conversation about starting over with Keeley to trying to figure Chelsea out (she seems well aware that her friends aren't nice people but gives token push-back when Keeley and Stacie are being cruel), while Lyn's side of the story often puts a strong focus on the hypocrisy of people who claim to take pride in resolving conflicts.

What makes the film sing at times is how fascinatingly fraught the relationship between Lyn and Iona is revealed to be; it initially has the shape of something sweet and close and obviously built for Iona to find Lyn embarrassing only to find who truly cares about her, but it's more interesting than that: Lyn lies to Iona nearly as much as the the other way around, and it soon becomes clear that a fair chunk of Iona's social issues come from Lyn's infantilizing her on the one hand and depending on her on the other. That there are problems to this mother-daughter relationship that go well beyond a teenager being more embarrassed than she should be, even if that's how it often plays, makes for a movie that feels like a familiar morality play but potentially goes in other directions.

Joanna Scanlan and Lily Newmark form the curved spine of the film as Lyn and Iona, and both deliver strong feelings of being outsiders without necessarily going for the easy cringe. Newmark is able to play Iona's ignorance without a comforting layer of wit or overriding innocence and thus let the audience see her as someone who probably won't be able to pull herself out of the trouble that's coming. Iona is mostly a decent person, but not always, and Newmark is able to separate that from her being particularly strong or smart. Scanlan, meanwhile, essays a fair case of depression as Lyn - not entirely crumpled or lethargic, but worn down and self-doubting, used to the bullying but still unable to comprehend the sheer pointlessness of it. She adds just the right amount of anger to Lyn's mousiness, and plays the moments that sell her as a decent parent just well enough to counter the ones where she's convincingly self-destructive.

There are a few moments that don't quite land - Iona's fantasies of a pretty air-hostess mother whom her unambiguous friends hold in awe seem well-conceived, with how they combine a sort of breathy fantasy with casual cruelty, for instance, seem like they might be brilliant in a less grungy movie but don't quite fit here. That's in large part because the often-tacky home of Lyn and Iona is so immersive, and there are so many parts of the film that seem so personal and set for double-duty. That's especially true near the end, as the way Lyn blurts out an important piece of information (how desperate for sympathy must you be to say that to strangers?) gives the actual contents of her words time to sink in, or a climactic moment highlights just how emotional warfare can remain a woman's weapon of choice even well into adulthood.

"Pin Cushion" isn't entirely about cruelty, but Haywood does find it in places where other filmmakers might not think to look. Time will tell if she continues to make movies as sharp as this fine debut, but it's a quality entry in the "adolescence is hell" genre.

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originally posted: 04/04/18 08:55:35
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