When we first meet Iona (Lily Newmark) and Lyn (Joanna Scanlan), they are in transition – literally moving into a new home in a new town, with their 17-year-old pet budgie and endless boxes of bric-a-brac. Hunchbacked Lyn and her flame-haired daughter are like figures from a fairytale – both a tight, loving mother-and-daughter pair, and also best mates who share everything (including a bed) and who, within the hermetic cocoon of their togetherness, have constructed a snowglobe world of infantilised fantasy, all teddy bears and dolls, cosy knitwear, cakes and confectionery, insulating them from the colder, more bitter world outside.
At first Pin Cushion plays like a celebration of quirk, transposing the primary colours and fetishised eccentricity of a Wes Anderson film to a small Derbyshire town, and lulling viewers into the interiority of its flawed if lovable ingénues, self-dubbed ‘Dafty 1’ and ‘Dafty 2’. Slowly yet surely, though, this first-time feature from writer/director Deborah Haywood (watch this name!) allows external realities to puncture their bubble. Shorty after they arrive, two young boys kick a football at Lyn, in a sign of bullying (directed at both women, in fact mostly by other women) to come – and when Lyn is halfway through painting their new home’s green interiors a comforting, uterine pink, a woman ‘borrows’ her stepladder and repeatedly, rudely refuses to give it back, both literally and metaphorically disrupting Lyn’s attempts at nest building. Polite to a fault, painfully unassertive and desperately lonely, Lyn will eventually try – and fail – to join a local friendship group, introducing herself with an awkward blurted confession that tells us everything we need to know about the immense universe of harrowing damage and isolation that have led Lyn to become who she is.
Meanwhile, Lyn’s caged bird becomes a symbol of Iona’s own feelings of being trapped and wishing to spread her wings. She is an emerging adolescent who longs to escape her mother’s clinging, needy love, but who will come to learn that surviving alone outside the roost is not so easy. At her new school, Iona is drawn to a clique of ‘bad girls’ who, like wicked stepsisters, take every opportunity they can to advance themselves and undermine her. The result for Iona is a toxic mix of premature sexualisation, underage drinking and horrific ostracism, as ‘frenemy’ Keeley (Sacha Cordy-Nice) – herself as desperate as Iona to be accepted – resorts to character assassination, cyber-bullying and worse, utterly destroying Iona’s innocence, as well as her relationship with her mother.
Both Lyn and Iona are fantasists who share a capacity to deceive both themselves and each other. Beautifully-mounted reveries from Iona’s fantasy life (in which everything is covered in DayGlo and tinsel, and her mother is a young, globe-trotting air stewardess rather than a middle-aged, misshapen stay-at-home) reflect something of the way that she would like her world to be. Haywood begins by crocheting joyous misfit comedy from these lustrously dreamy materials – sometimes shared by Iona and Lyn, sometimes concealed by one from the other – before, with a disarming frankness that catches us unawares, letting in the darkness. Pin Cushion may deconstruct its two heroines’ delusions, even their madness, but in doing so, it also exposes the ills of the society beyond, from which we viewers, ourselves fantasists too, hope vainly to see these endearing characters protected. Yet, after all, even the comfiest of cushions can come with hidden stings.
© Anton Bitel