SUNDANCE REVIEW: ‘Cusp’ (2021) is a Raw, Unobstructed Look at Teenage Girlhood

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

“Bethencourt and Hill capture the angst of girlhood with moving honesty.”

The summers of youth, unbound by the tedium of High School and not yet pinned down by adulthood, have a unique ability to melt time. Three months of idle days and endless nights, impermanent in a way that only becomes clear in hindsight. This is the setting of Isabel Bethencourt and Parker Hill’s debut documentary feature. Cusp is a raw, unobstructed look at teenage girlhood. In small-town rural Texas, underscored by the melodramatic wailings of Lil Peep, we meet our teen subjects, Brittney, Aaloni, and Autumn. With school out of session, the girls are left mostly to their own devices, which means parties, drinking, drugs–whatever will get them through their adolescence. From bonfires to soccer games, the film meanders with the whims of these girls as they come to navigate the invisible horrors of being a teenage girl. 

With Cusp, Bethencourt and Hill cast a verité lens to extract the truth about teenage girldom in 2021. Brittney, Aaloni, and Autumn grant the documentarians full entry into their inner worlds and they enter without judgment or direction. The camera is an omniscient observer as we follow the girls between backyard parties and late-night fast food trips. We get a rare glimpse of the idiosyncrasies of female friendship; the intimate ways these girls support and care for each other. This intentional aimlessness allows the girls at the center of the film to act as the authorities on their experiences, a level of agency hardly granted in their own lives. And they’re no strangers to documenting themselves; they are constantly projecting versions of themselves onto Snapchat, TikTok, and Instagram. 

With the space to be as sporadic as they want, their conversations zig-zag from girlish boy talk to more serious topics like consent and sexual assault. Bethencourt and Hill remain passive observers, but as we spend more time with these three young women, certain themes become inescapable. Early on, Autumn shares that one of their friends was “basically raped” by her boyfriend; her nonchalant delivery is met with disturbing acceptance. Rape culture is just a part of their reality. For young women, coming of age coincides with assuming the burden of toxic masculinity. Suddenly, snaking through dark backyards becomes haunted and all the “older” boys lingering on the outskirts of these parties feel oppressive. 

As more of the girls’ stories unfold, we learn that each of them has their own experience of trauma and violence by men. They speak with the grim clarity of having grown up too quickly. Their adolescence is a power struggle, forced to act like adults but unable to exert any control over their lives. Bethencourt and Hill’s neutral approach and beguiling cinematography do well to elevate the experience of these girls, but sometimes feels distant in these devastatingly intimate moments. The filmmakers offer no balm for the hopelessness, school starts again and it’s back to the minutiae of everyday life. The only hope comes from the ability of the girls to speak to their experience and care for their own.

As a former teenage girl, Cusp echoes of summers past (though I probably spent much more time in my bed scrolling through Tumblr). I’ve known these girls, I’ve cared for these girls; their stories are not important because they are remarkable but because they are so universal. Bethencourt and Hill capture the angst of girlhood with moving honesty. With its raw verité approach, Cusp grants Brittney, Aaloni, and Autumn the space to be candid and present their experiences as the vital stories they are.

Dir: Isabel Bethencourt, Parker Hill

Prod: Zachary Luke Kislevitz, Parker Hill, Isabel Bethencourt