Sundance 2021: “Cusp” explores the difficulties of being a teenager

Sundance Cusp Cusp (Sundance)

Parker Hill and Isabel Bethencourt’s observational documentary takes us through the complexities of awkward teen girlhood.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.)

Being a teenager is hard. This period of life contains the contradictory belief that you can take care of yourself while also dealing with crippling insecurities. Honestly, Britney Spears said it best when she sang, “I’m not a girl but not yet a woman.” 

Cusp is an observational documentary by Parker Hill and Isabel Bethencourt that focuses on the complex experiences of teenage life by following three Texas girls — Brittney, Aaloni, and Autumn — over the summer months. They fall in and out of love, party with their friends, and openly talk about what they’ve been through in the fifteen or more years on this Earth. 

Technically, Cusp is stunning. As with most documentaries that attempt the cinéma vérité style, there are no formulated shots of a talking head interview. Rather, this lack of narration allows the girls and the setting to create a narrative that feels real. The rich colors of the Texas sunsets, the eating of Blue Bell ice cream in the backseat of a friend’s car, the intense emotion that comes after your first heartbreak, all feel natural. The camera is almost non-existent; it rarely draws attention to itself, putting us in the midst of the drama as these girls get ready for a party or watch the older boys shoot guns. 

Cusp’s strength derives from how it achieves a rare and personal look at rape culture and male dominance. Men weaponize the insecurities of these young girls and ignore their opinions in order to maintain control. Not only is their small Texas military town unkind to their attempts to figure out who they are, but it also limits how they can grow into young women. This social commentary builds naturally as the topic of drunken sex is discussed at a party, or, as Autumn admits, she said ‘no’ but he didn’t listen, which resulted in her losing her virginity. “That isn’t your virginity,” Aaloni echoes.  

Cusp is unafraid to embrace a teenage girlhood that is awkward and messy.

This toxicity is not limited to the girls and their peers. Aaloni struggles to exist in the same setting as her father. One moment, on her sister’s thirteenth birthday, shows just how deeply rooted societal misogyny can be even in the most innocuous of settings: her sister wears a shirt that shows a bit of her belly while the family hangs out at home. After vocalizing how pretty she feels, Aaloni’s father tells her to change, which causes her to declare that her entire day is ruined. This angers Aaloni to the point of confronting her father, only for him to state that he will not have his daughters dressing like that in his household. 

While Cusp is honest and full of heart, showcasing the uphill battle these girls constantly struggle through, some moments feel exploitative. In one scene, Aaloni offers to pierce any of the girl’s nipples. Autumn agrees; while nothing explicit is shown, it still feels wrong. At times, the doc reminds you that these girls are minors and deserve a certain respect for their privacy. 

Cusp is unafraid to embrace a teenage girlhood that is awkward and messy. Still, the pace drags as it fails to make its message clear. The entire film would have benefited from more edits to eliminate the sense of intrusion, and developing its exploration of the topic of gender roles and sexual empowerment. 

Cusp played in the U.S. Documentary category at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and is currently seeking distribution.

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