Teenagerdom is hell. Few truths have been emphasized in American filmmaking with as much gusto as that one through the decades, and few thematic wells have been returned to as often. Between the likes of “Eighth Grade,” “Lady Bird," “The Edge of Seventeen” and other recent coming-of-age movies, the subgenre has erupted into various sub-subgenres exploring the specific stages of an experience that’s universal as a rite of passage, yet wildly different in terrain from one person to the next.
Still, some cliches are cliches for a reason. Breakups signify the end of the world. The party will almost certainly get busted. Our parents are our worst enemies. The only right way is our way. Fictional drama has fashioned the shared traits of volatile adolescence into a reliable playbook, and we have a rough idea of what to expect.
Filmmakers Parker Hill and Isabel Bethencourt are keenly aware of those expectations too. And in their first feature-length documentary, “Cusp,” they gamble that capturing a breakup, a fight, a reckoning outside the realm of carefully controlled fiction will inherently yield a fresh vitality. Years of older-skewed casting trends in Hollywood coming-of-age stories have lent them a bit of an assist; the first thing you notice about daring Brittney, goofy Autumn and resolute Aaloni – three tight-knit teenage friends who we get to know over the course of one rural Texas summer – is just how young they look. The cast of “Friday Night Lights” could be their aunts and uncles, not that Hill and Bethencourt have a need for role model archetypes. Constructed with a spirit of take-life-as-it-comes open-endedness that feels both invigorating and dangerous, “Cusp” becomes a documentary about three young girls trying to avoid being defined by the boys and men in their lives. Its ultimate accomplishment is that we absolutely come to believe they can, as well as triumph over so much more, despite the tensions lurking in the underbrush of teenage ennui.
Skinning the thorns of social media influence from its depictions of 21st-century mundanity while establishing a potent sense of place, the observations in “Cusp” are candid and unguarded. Lucky for the filmmakers and for us, candid and unguarded is in the social DNA of these teens. Paying no mind to the camera during moments of intimacy with their boyfriends and unafraid of whatever judgements would be lobbed their way while cursing up a storm, Brittney, Autumn and Aaloni make for captivating subjects precisely because they could care less about whether they were captivating their audience.
We don’t have to spend much time with the trio to understand why they gravitate towards each other, but part of “Cusp’s” appeal is dissecting how they confront life when apart versus when they’re together. Aaloni emerges as the most fiercely independent of the bunch, which we can trace back to the rocky relationship she and a younger sibling have with their father. Autumn has a steadier bond with her single dad, but how has going all this time without a mother affected her? Brittney, meanwhile, is just happy to spend the evening firing off a few rounds on the side of the road with her boyfriend; between that moment, the southern drawls of some of the people we meet, a dominant sense of individualism and the dubious occasional appearance of a Confederate flag, we never forget we’re in small-town Texas. At the same time, aside from the magnificent purple-pink hues of Texas dawns (Bethencourt and Hill, who share the cinematography credit, seem to have made it a morning ritual to capture the fire in the sky), that context rarely overpowers these girls’ stories, whether it’s the ones they share with each other or keep to themselves.
Hill and Bethencourt don’t anchor their documentary in any urgent underpinned narrative so much as they strive to appeal to the rawness of moment-to-moment interaction that defines this segment of the girls’ lives. To that end, “Cusp,” sort of like being a teenager, is a bit formless in shape—we enter and exit individual vignettes at random, sometimes unaware of what emotional state Brittany or Autumn or Aaloni are in, and we rarely spend more than a minute or two with them before “Cusp” flows on. It’s never stagnant, and much of the credit for that goes to Hill’s editing, which serves to remind us that the current of life doesn’t slow down even after carrying us into a rock jutting out from the stream. The co-directors’ tagging along will ferry them to bonfire parties with blunts and beer pong; tense shouting matches between fathers and daughters; decisions that may lead to regret down the road; and, in a resurfacing topic between the friends, conversations about sexual assault and consent that are alarmingly casual because of what it implies about their own histories. They’re well aware of the seriousness of the subject matter, but there’s just as much to glean from how they’re at a loss about how to move on to something else.
That push-and-pull between stasis and forward momentum is at the heart of “Cusp,” a mighty strong first feature that ultimately closes at the beginning—that is, the start of a new school year, where a whole host of other priorities will vie for the starring trio’s attention. Even so, those inevitable lessons feel quaint compared to the education they received in the prior months, some of which we realize they don’t yet know was education in the moment, and may not for years. In “Cusp,” watching these three girls lead an ordinary life means watching them trying to make sense of it. As we hear one of them proclaim at the onset: “There is no normal in teenage years.” The doc captures that strange, intimidating, fulfilling sensation with aplomb.
Directed by Parker Hill and Isabel Bethencourt
MORE SUNDANCE COVERAGE:
- 'We were learning the whole time': 'Cusp' co-directors on capturing the aimlessness of being a teenage girl in small-town Texas
- ‘Cryptozoo’ Review (Sundance): A psychedelic fantasia of mystical beasts and hand-drawn ingenuity
- ‘One for the Road’ Review (Sundance): Swoon-worthy drama stumbles under the weight of melodrama down the homestretch
- ‘Son of Monarchs’ Review (Sundance): Unhurried immigrant drama attempts to balance the metaphysical with the strictly scientific
- 'The Most Beautiful Boy in the World’ Review (Sundance): Swedish doc paints vivid, haunting portrait of instant stardom
- Trio of films with Texas ties prepare for Sundance debut