As a teenager, one often feels trapped in between being treated as a kid while feeling like an adult. Cusp, a fly-on-the-wall documentary by Isabel Bethencourt and Parker Hill captures this feeling wonderfully. The three teenage girls it follows in small-town Texas all feel the agony of being on the cusp of adulthood. The film teeters on the edge of exposure and exploitation but never feels dishonest or sensational. Instead, this is a rare look at youth.
Rare in particular for the way is which the filmmakers seem to be able to act as flies on the wall. The three girls, Brittney, Autumn, and Aaloni, seem very natural in front of the camera. They reveal so many things about themselves and don't seem to be playing for the camera. The film brought to mind American Teen from the early 2000s. That was a documentary that came under fire for the ways in which it seemed to stage the drama of its subjects. Many argued the subjects of that film were playing versions of themselves for the camera. The same cannot be said of Cusp. This is warts and all and the camera rarely feels acknowledged.
Cusp was filmed during summer break. The timing is important as summer break is often aimless and yet full of experiences. Bethencourt and Hill have a lot to show about the dangers that surround these girls. The girls talk casually about how tough it is to say no and about how many friends have been raped or sexually assaulted. It is shocking to hear how matter of fact the girls are about this environment and the behavior of the boys around them. We see that their home lives are not always great. We see how much they drink and use drugs. Cusp rarely comments on these moments, presenting them is enough. The film avoids commentary in order to present the lives of these girls as honestly as possible.
One of the things I experienced while watching Cusp was the realization of how little things change for teenagers. It is easy to think that given the internet that these teens would be more enlightened, that something like the #metoo movement would be ingrained into them. Cusp offers a cold splash of reality. These girls, like most teens, don't have the skills to avoid the pressures to have sex or to avoid a situation that could lead to rape. They knowingly party with older guys. They know these guys will say in front of a crowd that 15 is too young but when they get the girls alone, things change. It is heartbreaking to see that even if they know what is going to happen, they don't feel like they can do anything to stop it.
Bethencourt and Hill shot the film themselves. It is often gorgeous, showing sunsets and empty parking lots in beautifully rendered images. Their approach may be the secret to how intimate the film is. In the end, the film only shows. It perhaps could have used something to help audiences process everything they see in it. However, that would rob audiences of the chance to talk about it, and trust me, you will want to talk about the issues this documentary brings up.