The documentary capturing the sad hedonism of teen America

‘Cusp’, a new movie at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, tells the story of three teen Texas girls battling summers of boredom and sexual violence.

by Douglas Greenwood
03 February 2021, 12:50pm

Image courtesy of Sundance 

For the three girls at the heart of the new documentary Cusp, America seems like a lawless landscape. Still teenagers -- all 15 and 16 -- they drink and smoke together at parties, date boys far older than them, and consider how the boundaries of consent are blurred by the patriarchy, always stacked against the girls’ favour. What should be sources of outrage are, quite plainly, a lived, mundane reality for them. In rural Texas, where the picket-fence American dream seems so far out of sight, escapism looks remarkably different.

Premiering at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, Cusp, directed by Parker Hill and Isabel Bethencourt, is a profoundly evocative and alive portrait of young modern America. Set over the course of one summer, though focussing most significantly on those final weeks before school starts again, it’s set in a Texas military town where the lives of teenagers are muddy and aimless without the structure of school life. 

Brittney is the extroverted girl who wants to be wiser than her years; convinced she’s headstrong enough to drink and party with people far older than her. Aaloni, whose veteran father has a sort of spectral, distant presence in her busy household, is close to her mother, someone who teaches her how to protect herself in the outside world (“I fucking hate teenagers” she smirks, knowing the irony). Then, there’s Autumn, arguably the most ‘together’ of the group. She’s in a committed relationship with a boy she likes, and lives with her father after her mother left. She knows the way this adolescent world works, but still can’t protect herself from the waves of conflict that perpetually run through it.

There is a luridness to Parker and Isabel’s portrayal of these lives: beyond stark cinematography of roaring fire pits and silhouetted birds against deep purple dusk skies, it’s never particularly fawning or attractive. Instead, the world these girls live in — out of necessity, not choice — is both a safe haven and a battlefield. The only entertainment they can provide for themselves also leads them into dangerous situations, but that’s not the fault of the girls themselves — it’s a byproduct of a society built by male dominance: a military town where older boys with cars and motorbikes seem like knights in shining armour.

But despite this, Cusp is never classist, nor does it negate the experiences of these teenage girls. Knocking back cans of beer and smoking blunts as Lil Peep plays is framed in a manner as fun as that experience must be. Kids cut lines of unidentifiable substances on camera, knowing that nobody cares enough for there to be consequences. 

But that lack of consequences extends to the dark theme at the heart of Cusp: the endemic spread of sexual violence in these teenager’s circles. Early on, Brittany and Aaloni have a conversation about a friend breaking up with her boyfriend because he raped her. And they use that word -- no euphemisms; knowing what’s wrong is wrong. In the film, sexual violence and predatory behaviour are accepted as a reality. Both girls shrug off the inevitability of its presence while also acknowledging how the men of this world won’t do anything to curb their own damaging sources of sexual pleasure. There’s a jarring moment when a boy, at least in his late teens, acknowledges Brittany’s age (15) as a reason for not dating her. Then he decides to do so anyway. Their relationship is portrayed not as abusive but loving; Parker and Isabel taking a step back from judgement to show us how Brittany is embracing this newfound love affair.

This is not to say that Cusp is as despondent as it may sound on paper. These girls, who Parker and Isabel met at a gas station while shooting a photo series of the American teen summer, were serendipitously fiery and outspoken. Nobody cowers in fear here — in fact, in one scene Aaloni confronts her dad for shaming her 13-year-old sister for what she’s wearing on her birthday, resulting in a fight heard but not seen. She’s protective, inheriting her own mother’s spirit. 

Some critics are asking: what are these girls' hobbies beyond partying and hanging around in McDonald’s’ parking lots? But doing so exposes the misunderstandings that exist between past generations and today’s. At what age do we decide our higher purpose, and do our parents play a part in leading us to what we love? Or is it the case that this aimlessness and so-called wasted time are the only hobbies some are permitted to have, ‘real’ hobbies like sports and creative endeavours being things the working classes of America aren’t exposed to in the same way the comfortable middle classes are? Sometimes, there’s pleasure to be found in something that feels like nothing. That’s the world that these girls, right now, find themselves in. When Cusp finishes, it promises a tomorrow: school will start again. But what it does so purely is capture that feeling of freedom unique to those days, wasted away in a hot summer, spending time with the folks you’ll remember forever. 

Cusp premiered at the Sundance Film Festival 2021

coming of age
sundance film festival