Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Showtime Documentary Films releases the film in theaters on Friday, November 12, and will premiere on Showtime on Friday, November 26.
Despite the myriad ways in which teenagers so readily share their lives online these days — Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, surely something else brand-new by the time this is published — there is something distinctly brave about the three subjects at the heart of Isabel Bethencourt and Parker Hill’s intimate documentary “Cusp.” Following a trio of very different friends during a shiftless summer in small-town Texas, the pair’s feature debut unearths a series of staggering revelations, all of them rooted in the real experience of their courageous stars. And while Bethencourt and Hill’s documentary finds magic during the strange liminal space between childhood and adulthood, “Cusp” also makes the case for a continuing series focused on its compelling subjects.
What’s most enthralling about the material, however, is the sense that its subjects would likely scoff — like all good teens — at the thought that their experiences are somehow unique or worthy of being viewed as anything more than just a slice of their own lives. Such are the awkward charms of teenagers: they somehow seem to think they are both the most important people in the world and just like everyone else. “I don’t know how to describe me yet,” one of Bethencourt and Hill’s subjects shrugs at the start of the film, before reeling off a number of key facts about herself. They know themselves, even if that seems hard.
The film has a tendency to meander by design: it’s set over the course of one summer, but often feels as if it’s encompassing years; when it caps off with the first day of school, it’s both a natural end and a surprising one. As it drifts along, the narrative is stabilized by a trio of strong personalities. Brittney loves to party and is outwardly very confident, but her early proclamations that she’s mature enough to hang with older folks is soon to be tested. Aaloni is a tough-talking new girl, intent on standing up for herself and setting herself apart from the crowd (“Personally, I fucking hate teenagers; yes, I’m saying I hate myself”). Autumn seems to know far better than any of her friends what dangers lurk in seemingly friendly settings.
Boy talk dominates many of their interactions, including an early look at Autumn’s relationship with her boyfriend Dustin that seems destined for implosion, while various family issues turn into the focal point of the film’s heartbreaking second half. And, tied up in both, there are continued discussions about the impact of sexual assault on all of their lives. First, there’s Brittney dropping the news that some pals broke up because the boy “basically raped” his girlfriend, her initially blasé delivery masking some hard-won thoughts on the matter. More stories like it will unfold as “Cusp” moves forward, but the honesty and respect given to each tale is the film’s greatest strength.
For all of the girls’ maturity on certain subjects, “Cusp” finds them making plenty of mistakes on the path to adulthood, and while it’s easy to judge them at a remove, Bethencourt and Hill never do. The pair also served as the film’s cinematographers, and the elevated treatment of the material — part Terrence Malick, part Helene Louvart — also adds to the sense that what we are watching is important. It is, and so are Brittney, Aaloni, and Autumn and their experiences.
Mostly, what sticks about “Cusp” is the easy intimacy of the girls, the tribal nature by which they come together to support and protect each other. Early on, Brittney assembles herself across Autumn’s bed so that her friend can pluck her eyebrows, a moment that should feel bracingly recognizable to any former teenage girls (this critic was instantly catapulted back to a similar time in her life; and yes, Brittney, those damn hairs do hurt like a bitch). Wherever the girls are going next, we can only hope they do it together, perhaps even on camera, for their new cadre of fans to enjoy. As “Cusp” approaches its feel-good ending, one of its subjects offers an essential coda: “I’m only 16, I’ve got forever to go!”
“Cusp” premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. Documentary Competition section.