Credit: Sundance Institute / Showtime
by Nicholas Yap Featured Film Streaming Scene

Cusp | Isabel Bethencourt & Parker Hill

November 24, 2021

Cusp is a frequently gorgeous doc that lights on some fascinating presentational modes and psychological insights, but which stumbles in last-minute bid for palliative punctuation.

The myth of that one perfect summer, cemented in popular thought as the horizon of youthful whimsy — where the binate orders of innocence and experience find alignment and prime their flighty subjects for adulthood’s greater domain — has always corresponded closely with the analogy of exorcism. A subtractive rather than constructive process (as implied by common associations with personal growth), it typically unfurls like a treillage of spiritual and mental baggage, the source of which is a strangulation of one’s rational faculties that must sooner be yielded; this perpetually arrested development being dissolved in either celebratory indulgence or a flush of life-altering wisdom. As alluded to by its title, Cusp inheres within the liminal territory attendant to these preoccupations, though its conclusions are neither arrived at through such restrictive channels as libertine abandon and awareness ex nihilo, nor telescoped toward eventual wholeness, for that matter. Parker Hill and Isabel Bettencourt’s chance meeting (described in press notes) with the teenaged trio at the film’s core — Autumn, Brittney, and Aaloni — provides some indication of the schema according to which their documentation adheres: at a Texan gas station in the wee hours, presaged by little more than a few desultory reminiscences of the filmmakers’ high school years beforehand. Idle conversation leads to considerable rapport between both parties. And so it is that a private world of ritually-scheduled parties, heart-to-hearts, and creek adventures elegantly reveals itself.

Accompanying the girls over the course of summer vacation, the film renders both their rugged dwellings and the paradisal wonders that underlie these conditions; a regular procession of hyaline dawns and amethyst dusks, pasture sprawl and wooded trails, all garlanded in the infamously prestige-conferring, mandala-like clouds of haze popularized by the likes of Korine and Malick. Skewing closer to dramatic accessory than thoroughgoing framework, though, these features never impinge on the film’s essential, wandering nature, favoring passing survey of sundry idylls over a concentrated sedimentation of their beauties, foregrounding self-evident prettiness to the exclusion of all else. As it happens, the documentarian duo refrain from mediating their filmed excursions more than strictly necessary to scaffold viewers’ access to this community. While the various gossip sessions and fireside anecdotes that enliven the trio’s daily meanderings admit more privileged context to their deciphering than can be realistically expected from the patchy recollections and references that comprise teenage conversation, alongside the knotty language-games crucial to the flavor of its general parlance — therefore, also raising the question of how much the perks of authorship, intentionally or not, explicitly leveraged or not, influence the behavior of individuals necessarily subordinate to it — there remains an underside viewers are never privy to.

The teenagers are certainly pleasant and amiable enough, whether it’s carping animatedly about boys, sifting through and selecting party dresses, or demonstrating for filmmakers their morning routine, but a perceptible guardedness undergirds even their first interactions; one always indicative of the fact that we’re merely outsiders to this particular cloister, regardless of any perceived understandings of them formed in response to the vulnerabilities shared on screen. Indeed, these vulnerabilities are uttered with significant frankness; two of the girls are survivors of sexual abuse at the hands of a family friend and ex-partner, and at 15, they’ve endured more than most could imagine across a lifetime, gravitating instinctively to each other for the mutual affirmation that their friendship provides in a male-dominated environment, and taking precautions against lone encounters with others. Still, the threat of violence and assault anchors itself to situations wherein they are surrounded by older guys, some of whom are clearly enticed by their young age but feign concern in questioning it anyway; this practice is remarked on later as a mere pretext for luring obvious minors into compromising engagements. Though prudent to question the specificities of Hill and Bettencourt’s prior arrangements with their young subjects, moreso as they apply to scenes where Autumn and Brittney share traumatic memories of abuse on camera, it’s also admissible that perhaps this is the only means of reaching an audience with their experiences, and the freedom afforded to them in the act of expressing and objectifying, in some small form, such inconceivable pain must have partially justified their decision to do so. Even so, the film’s final montage of imagery featuring group photos of the trio and their exploits captured over the period of Hill and Bettencourt’s stay with them scans as a woefully miscalculated decision in light of its assemblage as a series of motivational vignettes, following a voiceover by Autumn about the value of confidence and self-validation; this choice, well-meaning as it may be, unwittingly conceals the irresolvable contradictions that often figure into the emotional labor of recovery in real-time. Coming as a slab of palliative reassurance at the tail-end of a film so attuned to the strength that comes from female fraternity and compassion, both linchpins of a lengthy process of communal healing independent of personal will and resilience, this decision risks attributing this process as one composited solely by the former, as well as a function of the latter’s intractability.

You can stream Isabel Bethencourt & Parker Hill’s Cusp on Showtime beginning on November 26.

Originally published as part of DOC NYC 2021 — Dispatch 4.