Sundance 2021 ‘Cusp’ Review: Exploitation or Honesty

This review contains mentions of sexual violence.

Sundance Film Festival

The buzzing warmth of the Texan summer, cigarette boxes shoved into chain link fences, flippant phrases scrawled across peeling bathroom walls, and the messy confusion of girlhood. Clad in bikini tops, denim shorts and flip-flops, these girls barrel down country roads, screech into nights lit by bonfires, and splash through creeks. Their lives are entangled and clustered together, marked by shakiness and the difficulty of finding authenticity in their sense of self. Autumn, Brittney, and Aaloni are equal parts confident and insecure, both loving and hating the wildness and unpredictability of their youth. 

Directed by Isabel Bethencourt and Parker Hill, Cusp is an intimate peering into the lives of three teenage girls and the familiarity with which they encounter darkness and sexual violence. From strained parental relationships to boyfriends who are far more controlling than they should be to increasingly offhand discussions of rape, they are so painfully aware of just how casually abusive and toxic the men in their lives are and it is incredibly difficult to watch. 

It feels even worse when this stuff happens on camera in plain view of the documentary crew. It feels horribly exploitative to allow so much to happen in the name of authenticity. These girls are beautiful and it is vastly interesting to watch their lives unfold, but it also feels irresponsible for adults to observe and film them being actively manipulated by older men. One of the girls verbalizes over and over the behavior of her boyfriend and then we see it for ourselves. They are only fifteen and we watch them repeatedly accept drugs and alcohol and sexual advances from men who are obviously taking advantage of their youth. Authenticity then becomes irrelevant because the filmmakers are accountable for the violence that they are trying to make a statement about. Capturing the harsh reality of sexual violence and manipulation in the lives of young girls is very different from allowing it to happen right in front of you. All of this seems to undercut all of the genuine, sweet, and honest moments of the film. This is not to accuse the filmmakers of anything because I have to believe that everything was handled carefully and in a way that preserved both truth and morality, but it feels traumatizing. 

Their lives are captured wonderfully and most of the visuals are solid. An occasional lack of depth is made up for by the sweetness found in their friendship. Ultimately, though, it is disappointing because there is so much that this documentary could have become. There is certainly value in such a raw look into their lives, and there are times where we can see and focus on the good, but there is also much that feels uncomfortable. These girls have so much heart. I deeply appreciate their honesty and wish to protect them from all that they have experienced. They have all three been forced to mature far too fast and I cannot determine whether this documentary helped or hurt.  

Jenna Kalishman

BA in English and film studies. Early English literature as well as fantasy and sci-fi fanatic. Bylines include Lithium Magazine, Hey Alma, and Flip Screened. @jenkalish on socials.

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