Sundance Review: Isabel Bethencourt and Parker Hill’s candid doc ‘Cusp’ intuitively captures modern American girlhood
Cusp is a striking portrait of female adolescence. The documentary is a candid exploration of the reality of girlhood from debut feature filmmakers Isabel Bethencourt and Parker Hill.
In life, some chance meetings are utterly unforgettable and for Hill and Bethencourt, Cusp is the product of an unbelievable connection. The directorial duo stumbled upon Autumn, Brittney, and Aaloni, the subjects of their documentary, while on a photography road-trip through Texas. The three young women welcome Bethencourt and Hill into their inner social circle. They exhibit a remarkable level of comfort and honesty, even when followed by cameras.
In a Texan military town, where recreational activities involve vaping, alcohol, drugs and guns, Cusp chronicles the ordinary lives of these three teenagers. “I don’t know how to describe me yet,” one murmurs. The film finds these women at an interesting time; too old to be a child but not old enough to be an adult, they toe the line of parental control and newfound independence. Cusp’s rumination on young women’s coming-of-age experience is one that refuses to sidestep the treacherous road that they walk.
Entering the framework of adolescence, Autumn, Brittney, and Aaloni wish to evolve in their own time and in their way. Their desire for independence transpires in Cusp with each girl telling their individual story as they live it. Cusp is framed around these autobiographical and multifaceted offerings of perspective. With utter candour, even in the articulation of their uncertainty, the girls take the lead in expressing their tragedies and infatuations. The documentary makes an irrefutable commitment to this, sharing the distinctly individual lives united by the confusing and universal experience of being a young woman.
The raw vérité approach with which these young lives are documented is both sensitive and soul-bearing. Bethencourt and Hill use a hand-held camera that can move with the unpredictable actions of those it features, this action juxtaposed by a stunning aesthetic that comes to appreciate the warmth of the Texan sun. The subtle embrace of cinematic aesthetics also pays off with the abundant and poetically contrasting images of traumatising realities with pastel pink clouds and glittering eyeshadows.
Matter-of-factness comes with the prevalent discussions of sexual assault and rape culture that are casually brought up throughout the documentary. Nearly every one of the film’s subjects details a non-consensual sexual experience. “I was just so scared to say no,” one of the girls admits. The topic of consent is repeatedly tackled and it often comes down to the youngest women of the social group to explain to their male counterparts why being drunk is not an excuse for raping a girl. In candidly capturing the brutality that comes with being a young woman, Cusp occasionally runs into feeling unwatchable for its deeply personal nature. Perhaps it’s the experience of witnessing this no holds barred approach to the lives of young women or the innate desire to protect them from their bleak realities that present Cusp as an uncomfortable and troubling narrative of unavoidable toxic masculinity.
Nevertheless, Cusp is strongest when the focus is on the girls as a collective. Autumn, Brittney, and Aaloni are growing into themselves with unmistakable authenticity: “There is no normal in teenage years, we’re all confused.” The unflinching documentary displays youthful innocence to be nonexistent, a reminder of how horrific that in-between age is. Bethencourt and Hill’s documentary has voiced the experience of three young women and in doing so, stands in solidarity and understanding with countless others.
This review is from the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Image courtesy of Sundance Institute.