Cinema was littered with tales of teenage mean girls well before Tina Fey put a tidy name to their ilk in 2004 — rarer, however, are stories that extend their reign of terror decades past the prom. Achingly fragile and genuinely, preciously peculiar, British writer-director Deborah Haywood’s first feature “Pin Cushion” ambitiously examines the psychological damage wrought by bullying at all ages, admitting the painful truth that for some of those mean girls and their beleaguered victims, growing older does not mean growing up. Given human grounding by the wonderful Joanna Scanlan, as a timidly eccentric single mother seeing her naive adolescent daughter slip into the same hellish social no-woman’s-land from which she has never escaped, Haywood’s filmmaking itself marches to a different drummer. That’s a mixed blessing: Cinematically, “Pin Cushion” goes all in on a heightened, macramé-and-macaroons aesthetic that occasionally smothers the rawer nerves of its storytelling.
Having opened the rarefied Critics’ Week program at Venice before switching things up with a Fantastic Fest berth, Haywood’s classification-resistant debut can look forward to a varied festival run; in distribution terms, however, it seems a likelier prospect for curated streaming platforms than theatrical arthouses. As calling-card features go, “Pin Cushion” may be esoteric and uneven, but it’s not inauspicious: Haywood’s inspired visual acumen and sensitive grasp of complex female relationships could feasibly translate to bigger, broader canvases.
“There is no death, only transformation,” a dubious, leather-trousered psychic tells middle-aged misfit Lyn (Scanlan) midway through the film — rather callous words of encouragement to a woman who has waited decades in vain for transformation of the non-posthumous variety. Cripplingly shy, physically ungainly and entirely friendless, she seemingly lives solely for her teenage daughter Iona (Lily Newmark, in an arresting big-screen debut), with whom she has recently moved to a sleepy English town — trailed by unelaborated whispers of past misfortune and, in Lyn’s case, severe sexual abuse.
Lyn and Iona’s relationship might be described as contentedly dysfunctional: Wrapped up entirely in each other, they share a small double bed as well as every spare social hour, dancing, baking and partaking in the most delicate of handicrafts. If they jointly seem a little too fey for this world, that’s the point — yet while Lyn has successfully fashioned Iona as her mini-me to this point, in hand-knitted bobble hats and baggy cat-lady chic, it’s clear that mother and daughter’s paths are about to diverge.
Newly growing into the kind of rangy, edgy beauty that her mother has never known, Iona is slowly catching wise to the world of boys, makeup and classroom cliques from which Lyn can no longer shield her. She enters a gentle courtship with sweet-natured, curly-mopped Daz (Loris Scarpa) that seems benevolent enough, as Haywood sweetly evokes the awkward early rush of stolen kisses and ballpoint-pen tattoos. More alarming, however, is the interest taken in her by the school’s resident group of Heathers, led by vicious queen bee Keely (Sacha Cordy-Nice), which shifts quickly and suspiciously from toxic taunting to lipgloss-sharing.
It can be no accident that Newmark’s otherworldly features and rich ginger locks prompt nervous memories of Sissy Spacek in “Carrie.” Indeed, “Pin Cushion” sometimes seems to play as a deceptively prettified riff on Brian DePalma’s Stephen King interpretation, its folky reverie increasingly disrupted by nightmarish stabs of violence — a disconcerting tonal imbalance that seems more deliberate at some points than others, and leaves the characters’ most compellingly dark psychological undercurrents frustratingly half-exposed to the end.
In her own hand-knitted way, Lyn may be as oppressive a maternal influence as Piper Laurie’s raging Bible-basher in “Carrie,” but she’s no villain or harridan: “Pin Cushion” is most emotionally piercing in depicting the daily ways in which the world still punishes this loving, mild-as-milk woman for her difference, most gallingly when the local women’s “friendship group” tartly declares that she won’t fit in. Scanlan is an expert at conveying quiet but deep-seated suffering, most poignantly on the sidelines of such films as “The Invisible Woman” and “Girl With a Pearl Earring”; now handed a leading showcase, she makes Lyn’s profound psychic pain vivid enough to cut through the character’s woolly tangle of quirks.
Would that Haywood had a bit more of her leading lady’s acuity. Given a dreamy pastel gauze by cinematographer Nicola Daley, decorated to the pink-patchwork-quilted hilt by production designer Francesca Massariol and scored at a high, wind-chiming jangle by composer Natalie Holt, “Pin Cushion” is impressively of a piece in terms of mise en scène, but risks seeming as stylistically overstuffed as the trinket-strewn cottage Lyn and Iona share. That’s partly by design, as you sense Iona’s identity struggling to escape her mother’s cozy angora embrace, but the film itself could stand to give its characters’ most complicated crises some breathing room.