'Cusp' Review: Teen Girls Hit The Highs & Lows Of Summer Love And Partying In This Candid Doc [Sundance 2021]

It's never been harder to be a teenager than right now, an age when all the trials and tribulations of growing up follow you no matter where you go thanks to the smart phone that everyone has in their pockets or hands at all times. It's even worse when there's nothing to do, which is why teen girls Autumn, Brittney, and Aaloni often find themselves passing the time and escaping parents in their small Texas town by drinking, smoking, and hanging out with older dudes and gun-toting bros. And directors Parker Hill and Isabel Bethencourt follow them every step of the way in their verité documentary Cusp.

The presence of Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok might make it seem like there's very little we're not seeing from teens as they seem to document every aspect of their life. But Cusp shines a light on the more honest conversations and raw emotions that may be too intimate for social media. From bedroom hangouts to bonfires in the middle of nowhere to ill-advised parties with older boys who only have one thing on their mind, these 15-year old girls grow up in such a short time in front of our very eyes.

At first, you might find it easy to judge and cast aspersions on these teens as they sneak out of the house, drink beer and Smirnoff Ice, puff on their vape, or spark a bowl almost every day of the week. Their small town upbringing might make you think that these kids are hopeless and the life of the American teen has taken a steep turn for the worse. But this is also the world that the adults around them have created for them, and they take everything it offers in stride and try to make the best of it.

It becomes painfully clear that at 15 years old, these girls are already confronting rape culture head-on. Casual conversations about girlfriends going through a break-up because their boyfriend "basically raped" them unfold as if it's just another average day in the life of a young woman (and sadly that's truly the case). Among the three girls, there's even unfortunate first-hand experience, including a boyfriend who didn't take no for an answer despite it being said several times, and a family friend who sexually abused one of the girls due to parental negligence.

Most of the parents aren't much more helpful either. Aaloni's mother is stuck in an unhappy marriage (no matter what she tells herself) with a bitter veteran suffering from PTSD and it's clear that he's feared and hated in the household. She's also not the best role model herself, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes with her daughter, who she also encourages to engage in violence to solve a confrontation. Sure, it makes Aaloni the toughest of the group, even though she's also new in town, but it also threatens to set her on an aggressive path. Brittney's parents are apparently drunk a lot of the time, and Autumn only has a sickly father to care for her, though he's the only one who seems to be a responsible father, encouraging his daughter when he can.

But as you watch these girls waste the summer away, the initial judgment you might have passed fades. You worry for them, but begin to see that they're a tight knit group of friends who keeps an eye on each other. It's clear that they're doing the best they can with the circumstances they've been given. Like any teen, they're going to make mistakes, and they're going to learn lessons the hard way (on top of those they already have). They still have a lot to learn about the danger of certain men and how relationships are supposed to work. But they've got their whole life ahead of them to figure things out, and hopefully they can handle it all with as much aplomb as they handle the hurdles this summer has brought them.

Cusp is presented with such an objective but observant lens, one that captures some of the most raw moments of summer for these teenage girls. Parker Hill and Isabel Bethencourt make incredible use of magic hour, capturing these girls in shots that have a little bit of Terrence Malick in them. Whether it's water slowly dripping from their hair at the beach, their phones poking out of their pockets as they walk across town, or the hot lights of trucks, motorcycles, street lamps and fires illuminating their faces in the absolute darkness of rural Texas, this is a gorgeously shot documentary that lets its subjects simply exist. And when those subjects are teens living in the middle of nowhere, that's about all they can do.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10