Cusp – Sundance 2021 Review

TW: Discussion of Sexual Assault, Abuse, Rape

Parker Hill and Isabel Bethencourt’s Cusp is a difficult film to talk about. This is mostly because it’s a difficult film to watch in truth. Chronicling a summer in the lives of three Texan teenage girls on the precipice of adulthood, Autumn, Brittney, and Aaloni, the Hill and Parker’s vérité style documentary follows the girls as they navigate the grim reality of life as a young woman in today’s society.

We first meet Brittney hanging out with Autumn on a swing in the middle of a non-descript field. As the girls take selfies, two men (important distinction, they are men and not boys, as almost all of the males in this film are) are firing AR-15s into a white board in between goes pushing the girls on their swing and laughing together. As far as introductions and setting the tone go, we are given in microcosm the essential nature of the film as a whole, and when Lil’ Peep’s ‘U Said’ starts playing over the opening credits and the rapper repeatedly shouts ‘Sometimes life gets fucked up’, the song sounds more than a little like anl anthem and a battle cry for the teenagers of today.

Within the film’s opening ten minutes, we learn that Brittney almost exclusively hangs out with older people. She doesn’t know why, though the implicit subtext that she knows why they hang out with her is hard to ignore. Aaloni boldly introduces herself by declaring how she’s ‘not scared of shit’ – by the time we’ve watched her defend her little sister to her shouting, domineering father in one of the film’s many hard to watch encounters you’d be a fool not to believe her when she says it. And then we meet Autumn, who doesn’t go in for the drinking and partying hard lifestyle of her two peers. We find out why in an excruciatingly matter of fact way when she recalls how her father’s friend used to abuse her as a child while her mum and dad ignored it and turned a blind eye. Autumn has been in therapy since she was young, and has been raised to believe she is worthless to the extent that she experienced suicidal ideation before she’d even hit her teen age.

Autumn, Brittney, and Aaloni’s lives are dysfunctional and destructive through no direct fault of their own – their struggles are too entrenched in their status as young women in a world that still seems to in large quarters operate as if at the mercy of men, and their battles are a continuation of the battles their mothers have fought and their mothers’ mothers have fought before them and are still fighting. When we see glimpses of the central trio’s parents, we see premonitory visions of what may await them in years to come, both in terms of the battle-hardened women their mothers are and the monsters of men they have found themselves bound to. One of the mums says ‘If I gotta have an asshole, it might as well be the one I know’, and well damn if that ain’t the truth for so many women I have known in my lifetime.

Though we do see the girls laugh and joke and mess around together how we’d like to imagine teenagers should on occasion throughout the film, Cusp is very much dominated by its increasingly prevalent demonstration of where the seeds of rape culture are sown in modern society. Throughout the film we see grown men attempt to engage in implied sexually intimate relationships with the girls, we hear the girls themselves list off all the times they have been taken advantage of, and heartbreakingly we hear story after story of times where girls featured in the documentary have said no and been ignored. In the best case scenarios, the guys involved have been angry and yelled at them and made them feel bad, in the worst (which are the more frequently discussed)… well, we know what happens in the worst case scenarios.

Whilst the film may serve as a necessary document of the teenage experience for some who will appreciate the firm affirmations that they are not alone and do not deserve to be treated as sexual objects and playthings, the extremity of some of the encounters that Hill and Bethencourt bear witness to without intervention raises questions over their prioritisation of gripping footage over basic human concern and dignity. The line of what is appropriate to be documented is approached and breached several times over the course of the film, and it just doesn’t quite sit well with this particular critic.

Overall, Cusp is both a film that highlights many prevalent social issues that need to be kept front and centre in the cultural conversation, and one that feeds perhaps negatively into discussions regarding safeguarding practices and the sensationalism of the epidemic of grossly inappropriate sexual conduct we are living through. This is a film that certainly has something to say, and its subjects are tenacious young women who I hope will go on to greater things, but the lingering feeling we are left with is uncertainty over whether what they have been through on camera was necessary in order to say it.

Cusp played as part of the Sundance Film Festival 2021

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