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The evocative closing shot in Cusp — a documentary whose aesthetic beauty counterpoints the raw experiences mostly shrugged off by its unguarded subjects — shows three young women at a local swimming hole as one takes a flying leap off the rocks high above the water. The image conjures associations with countless American coming-of-age stories, incisively capturing the exhilaration and fear of having a whole life ahead of you. Debuting directors Parker Hill and Isabel Bethencourt’s vérité portrait of a tight-knit trio of teenage girlfriends in a small Texas military town has many similar moments of illumination, even if its poignant insights don’t quite cohere into a robust through-line.
The aimless, unstructured feel is clearly a big part of the point in a hangout movie that by design is without cathartic drama. And the filmmakers deserve credit for their nonintrusive approach, allowing impressions to form organically of the subjects as a group, individually and in their home environments, with no sign of them being nudged in any specific direction. But for all its sensitivity, respect and evidence of mutual trust, Cusp feels wispy, as if the molding clay hasn’t found its shape.
Shot over summer break when subjects Brittney, Autumn and Aaloni are aged 15 or 16, the film chronicles nights of bonfire parties, chilling over cold beer, blunts and boy talk, frequent McDonald’s runs and dips in the river, selfies and occasional self-revelations. “There’s no normal in teenage years,” says one of the friends near the start. “We’re all confused.” That limbo state initially creates its own hazy, enveloping spell. But the subjects are not distinctive enough to avoid the film slipping into repetitive grooves, even if there are lovely interludes of shared intimacy, from eyebrow-plucking to, ouch, nipple-piercing.
What’s most compelling about Cusp is the disturbing picture that emerges of three random teens no doubt representative of countless underage woman in towns across the map who have experienced sexual assault. It’s quite telling that the first time rape is mentioned as the cause of a friend’s breakup, there’s no shock in the news, just a casual, matter-of-fact piece of information from their school circle.
Hill and Bethencourt, who also shot the film, are sharp-eyed in their observation of the tools the girls employ for protection, starting with strength in numbers. They mix mainly with older guys of 18 or 19, but are careful not to be alone with anyone with a shady reputation or to get overly inebriated around them. One stoner’s thoughts on consent are especially eyebrow-raising: “It’s not rape if they’re both intoxicated.”
Still, there’s a jaded acceptance of the way things are in a hotbed of toxic masculinity like this one, which is signaled from opening shots of discarded condoms and sexual graffiti among the roadkill and abandoned buildings of an economically depressed town.
This is a tough environment, and one of the subjects reveals she was raised by her mother to believe that tears are a sign of weakness. So sharing their feelings and showing vulnerability is not something that comes easily. There’s almost a detachment when they express regret about losing their virginity: “Girls are just scared to say no. Guys are powerful.” One calls her boyfriend respectful and loyal, yet relates how he went from “It sucks that you’re 15” to suddenly forgetting about her age in the heat of the moment.
Both Brittney and Autumn have been sexually abused, one by an adult friend of her father’s. But aside from passing talk of having been in therapy and going through a court case, the damage for the most part is heartbreakingly dismissed as part of growing up. What’s also unsettling is the way the girls seem to expect, or even accept, certain controlling behavior from guys, notably when Brittney obsessively checks her phone, waiting for her boyfriend’s anger after she’s been summoned but chooses to stay longer with her girlfriends. There’s a sadly blurred line in the subjects’ behavior between youthful ennui and depression, even if they mostly make light of it.
Those more substantive elements of the doc are somewhat diluted, however, by rambling stretches in which the friends’ lack of engagement with anything outside themselves makes them dullish company. That’s perhaps unsurprising in an environment that offers few distractions beyond partying, getting wasted and making out. Quick shots of signage like the holy roller message “To Be Almost Saved is to Be Totally Lost,” or a misspelled Dairy Queen promo, “Try Our Chiken Basket,” don’t suggest much in the way of stimulation. The absence of politics is conspicuous, though gun culture is rampant, if almost exclusively male, and a boyfriend’s bedroom wall is draped with a Confederate flag.
In terms of home life, the most revealing glimpses are of Aaloni’s family. Her mother treats her almost as a peer and she’s smart enough to earn that privilege. She opens up in some quietly emotional disclosures about the pressure of having her volatile father back in the house after he’s been away serving in the military for most of Aaloni and her three siblings’ lives. Her dad remains off-camera, but we get a startling jolt of his PTSD when he explodes at Aaloni for coming to her younger sister’s defense.
Any number of strands here might have benefited from expansion into a more detailed narrative, though many audiences no doubt will respond to the film’s loose, snapshot quality, particularly young women close in age to the subjects.
Cusp is uncommonly pretty for a doc with so much bleakness, shot in what seems like perpetual rotation from soft, sleepy dawn light through magic-hour sunsets to the hot glow of summer nights. The visuals, along with the setting, perhaps inevitably recall the beloved TV series Friday Night Lights, whose theme music of chiming guitars is echoed in Brooklyn-based composer T. Griffin’s acoustic score. Hill and Bethencourt’s more unvarnished counterpart to that canonical Texas youth portrait has its moments, yet ends up feeling incomplete.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)
Production companies: Maiden Voyage Pictures, Wavelength Productions, The 51 Fund, Kislevitz Films
Directors: Parker Hill, Isabel Bethencourt
Producers: Zachary Luke Kislevitz, Parker Hill, Isabel Bethencourt
Executive producers: Caitlin Gold, Naomi McDougall Jones. Joe Plummer, Jennifer Westphal, Chris Columbus, Eleanor Columbus
Directors of photography: Isabel Bethencourt, Parker Hill
Music: T. Griffin
Editor: Parker Hill
Sales: Endeavor Content
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