The thing about adolescence, while you’re in it, is that it takes so damn long. The future is so close you can touch it, but in the meantime, life is a prison sentence: adults telling you what to do, where to be, treating you like a kid, when you are not a kid at all (in your own mind, that is). One of the things that “Cusp,” a documentary by Isabel Bethencourt and Parker Hill, about a trio of teenage girls living in a small Texas town, does really well is evoke that in-between agony, of being still a kid, but on the “cusp” of adulthood, yearning for freedom, independence or … in the case of these girls … escape. As one of the girls says, when she turns 18 she is going to leave “and never see my parents again. I am never ever ever coming back here.” You believe her.
Brittney, Autumn, and Aaloni are 15, 16 years old, and it is summertime. The summer is aimless and endless, and also intense and eventful. “Cusp” has some serious things to say about teenage girls and the dangers surrounding them, but the directors have embedded themselves so totally in the girls’ world, and the girls are so seemingly casual about all of it, that there’s a disconnect at work. Some might find the disconnect disconcerting, and they would not be wrong. But “Cusp,” with its dreamy imagery of golden sunsets and thunder-y twilights, empty Dairy Queen parking lots, and birds taking flight, is a mood-driven piece of work, sensitive to landscape and environment, and the girls’ casual comments about rape (just one example) stand in stark contrast.
The girls are often filmed sprawled out on one of their beds, long limbs intertwined, the casual and comforting pig-pile of lazy teenage girls. Their subject matter is often serious. Their home lives are less than ideal, and in some cases fraught with violence. They are in each others’ business, as good friends always are. They go to swimming holes, they stroll along dirt roads, phones sticking out of the back pockets of their short shorts. They sneak out of their houses to go to a party in the woods, a party broken up by the cops.
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The first shot of “Cusp” is almost eerie: Two girls sit on a swing as two boys in the background shoot guns at a target, strolling into frame wielding gigantic automatic weapons. Nothing is strange about this to the kids in question. One of the boys starts pushing the girls on the swing, and the girls shriek and laugh. It’s an excellent shot, although self-conscious in its juxtaposition: it is the view of an outsider. The rest of the film avoids this type of explicit commentary. “Cusp” mostly lives on the inside, in the thick of it with the girls.
Voiceover narration shows up intermittently, and the girls narrate their lives in almost deadpan fashion. Brittney: “I party every day. Gives you something to do.” Aaloni: “I’m not scared of shit.” Autumn, memorably: “Personally, I f**king hate teenagers. Yes, I’m saying I hate myself.” Brittney brags that everyone wants to be friends with her. Her inflated ego is a smokescreen: as her story unfolds, she seems like the one most at risk, the one closest to being derailed by what are usually called “bad choices.” When you hear Brittney’s backstory, her “bad choices” don’t look “bad” at all. They look like a rational response to the chaos in which she has been raised. Aaloni’s mother is a “cool mom,” smoking and drinking with her daughter, and giving her alarming self-defense tips (“Punch her in the crotch where you won’t leave a mark.”) Aaloni’s dad, never seen, is a war veteran with PTSD, and the entire family walks on eggshells to avoid his temper. And finally, there’s Autumn, a fragile intelligent girl, who was molested by a friend of her mother’s. Autumn was not believed when she told her story, and the mother subsequently abandoned the family. Autumn now lives with (and takes care of) her ill father, and has fallen madly in love with a boy named Dustin.