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Review: Cusp, Like Its Teenage Subjects, Finds Itself in a Holding Pattern

At its best, the documentary’s aura of desolation suggests a verité version of Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show.

Photo: Sundance Film Festival

Across a series of hazy summer nights, Isabel Bethencourt and Parker Hill’s documentary Cusp evocatively captures a group of teens practicing the rituals of adulthood. What they do is instantly recognizable as the stuff of restless youth: a blur of parties and drinking; of profanity used to simulate toughness and maturity in the face of discomfort; of awkward, exploratory touches that are freighted with yearning and uncertainty. Meanwhile, the days are filled with lazy gossip, rationalizations of whatever might have happened the night before, and fast food as an all-purpose hangover cure.

Which isn’t to say that Cusp is a nostalgic idle in the tradition of so many teen movies, as it has an aura of desolation that suggests a verité version of The Last Picture Show. Like Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 classic, Cusp is set in a small Texas town where no one seems to do much besides aimlessly drive around, drink, and screw. Politics are never mentioned, but the town abounds in conservative, implicitly aggressive iconography; a Confederate flag hangs on one teen’s bedroom wall, and guns are casually carried throughout, almost exclusively by boys.

With magnificent succinctness, the film’s first image—of two girls sitting huddled in a swing as boys eagerly approach them with what appear to be rifles in their hands—embodies the way that teenage girls utilize one another for safety in a male-dominated world that’s at once compelling and frightening. Throughout, the filmmakers are unnervingly attuned to the lives of three girls—Brittney, Autumn, and Aaloni—as a volatile initiation into reading physical codes and cues. Everyone around them seems simultaneously vulnerable, friendly, and sinister. Two of the three have been sexually abused, and they’re acutely aware of which boys to avoid at parties. In one scene, a friend’s rape is spoken of with heartbreaking matter-of-factness.

Brittney, Autumn, and Aaloni all live in low-income housing and appear to have only perfunctory interest in anything besides booze, weed, clothes, and boys. Autumn tries to avoid overdrinking so as to stay on guard for potential violations, but she slips into a depressive state when her boyfriend, Dustin, dumps her. Bethencourt and Hill allow us to grasp the momentousness of this breakup, rendering Autumn and Dustin’s relationship in intimate images that reveal the union to have been a refuge from the pressures of social life and the disappointments reflected in the disheveled homes and either hapless or unstable parents.

Aaloni, whose mother talks to her as a peer and whose PTSD-afflicted veteran father regards his family as “peasants,” appears to be the most mature of the girls, and in the film’s most terrifying and moving scene she bravely confronts her father after he insults her sister. The man, who presumably didn’t want to be filmed, is never seen, and so we hear the argument between the father and daughter over static, claustrophobic images of their room.

This man’s invisibility underscores a quality that’s both Cusp’s greatest strength and limitation. Bethencourt and Hill plunge the audience into Brittney, Autumn, and Aaloni’s perspectives without hesitation or judgment, vividly capturing teenage confusion and tunnel vision. This is a remarkably empathetic achievement, but older viewers may find themselves, after a flush of recognition, feeling starved for substance. The girls’ vulnerability, and the defensive impression of shallowness it fosters, is Cusp’s only subject, and so the many sequences of girls drinking, checking their phones, and confessing their secrets start to grow repetitive. At a certain point, realistic banalities are still ultimately banalities.

Bethencourt and Hill’s omniscient gaze locks us in a holding pattern with people who are poignant but not, as portrayed here, necessarily interesting. Brittney and Autumn are defined mostly in terms of their sexual anxiety, while Aaloni commands the film for her willingness to see past herself to look at her family’s welfare. But do they have any opinions of the outside world? Do any of them read, watch stuff online, or do anything other than bicker, hook up, and hang out? And, if not, what does such a state say or not say about their inner lives? Cusp, intoxicated with pitying the irresolution of its subjects, doesn’t ask such questions.

Director: Isabel Bethencourt, Parker Hill Running Time: 84 min Rating: NR Year: 2021

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