There’s something very crass about Cusp, and almost all of that comes from its design. It’s aimless like its subjects, and it’s even more hopeless. Everyone worth sympathizing with is defined by some sort of trauma, and even some of the despicable people in play have their own traumas too. What’s striking, though, is the approach that sympathetic people here don’t fully realize the lasting effects of what they’ve gone through. After all, they’re too busy distracting themselves from it.
Brittney, Aaloni, and Autumn live in rural Texas, and it’s approaching the end of summer. They get drunk and high and hang out with guys, but they don’t really do to pass the time. In some way, shape, or form, they’ve all been abused. Some of the assailants were other kids, some parents’ friends. When they talk about other girls’ rapes, the discussions border on banal. Sure, this documentary will feel “distant” and “impersonal” to some, but the truth is that sexual violence is so common that talking about it seems easy. At least, it’s easier than actually being assaulted.
With Cusp, Isabel Bethencourt & Parker Hill don’t try to get “personal” with their subjects. They know it’s impossible to see exactly what’s going on in these girls’ minds, and they know it’d be false to pretend they can. If Brittney, Aaloni, and Autumn can’t confront their own demons for more than 30 seconds at a time, how would two filmmakers be able to? The intent here isn’t to show something new. It’s to focus on what we don’t know. If we happen to come across a pearl of wisdom, that’s great, but that simply isn’t the core of this experience.
We wade through the padding instead. We get McDonald’s, weed, crushed-up pills, and heavy drinking. As for therapy? There’s just one mention of it when Autumn recounts her experience with sexual abuse. Only the people and places that surround these girls are worth discussing in earnest here. Only physical sensations, whether it’s substance abuse or shooting a gun, truly exist for these three. Everything else is just too fleeting, too repetitive.
It’s far from a pleasant experience, but it’s also a brisk one at just 83 minutes. The problem that comes with this, though, is that Bethencourt & Hill get awfully close at points to defining these girls by their abuse. Just who are Britney, Aaloni, and Autumn aside from this? It’s clear they don’t have any concrete goals aside from living somewhere else, but aside from one moment where Autumn is painting by herself, what are their hobbies? While Cusp benefits from its distant filmmaking for stretches, it sometimes depersonalizes its subjects by mistake.
Perhaps there’s some intent there. After all, the directors fixate on nature, neon, and Americana as much as they do suffering, and it gets to a point where its aesthetics feel like they’re meant to distract the audience like how hedonism distracts these girls. The result isn’t perfect, but it manages to feel consistent. There’s no immediate future on display here. There’s also no real hope. To its credit, Cusp doesn’t even try to fake a smile.
Cusp premiered at Sundance Film Festival.