Sundance 2021 Review: Isabel Bethencourt and Parker Hill’s “Cusp” Captures Life on the Edge

There’s a lot of darkness in “Cusp,” which is in part a testament to the small unnamed town Texas where there’s incentive in keeping electricity costs low and the belief that street lights aren’t likely necessary on every corner when everybody knows each other. However, the idea that power only extends so far becomes an animating theme in the affecting and impressionistic doc where a trio of young women all well below the legal drinking age can be seen swigging tall boys from the start, perhaps feeling some liberty in being able to do something that should be beyond their years, but drowning their sorrows when so often they are put in situations that they shouldn’t have to deal with at their age or ever, for that matter.

When “Cusp” begins, its title would seem to reference coming of age, but increasingly it’s apparent that it’s observing the edge of a different precipice as Aaloni, Brittney and Autumn, who run in the same circles, all have a great deal of freedom in what they say and how they behave, with adults rarely seen or heard from and nowhere else to be but drinking with friends. Yet co-directors Isabel Bethencourt and Parker Hill shrewdly hone in on the reality they’re at the mercy of the men in their lives, be it Aaloni, whose father, a former soldier with PTSD, has little to say to the rest of the family except to make it known they live in his house; Autumn, who has invested herself fully in her current boyfriend when she can no longer trust her parents after she alludes to being molested by a family friend, and Brittany, who finds her words about a friend who was recently raped falling on deaf ears and saying that while older guys will say around others she’s too young at 15 to engage with, they’re quite different when they’re alone.

These damning admissions don’t register as complaints when it seems that these young women don’t know an alternative, seeing their own families stuck in a cycle that reinforces predominant misogynistic attitudes and can only repeat itself when there’s little way out of it economically. Rather than watching its subjects grow up, Bethencourt and Hill capture a place where the kids become adults too quickly and the adults regress when a sense of defeat is so prevailing, continually building up the importance of a seemingly innocuous opening scene where a couple of the girls lounge on a swing while the boys in the back fire off guns indiscriminately as the recognition sets in that there really is no place Aalani, Autumn and Brittney are safe from and nowhere they can truly relax as you come to know more about their histories.

When stories about this age are generally about figuring out who you are, “Cusp” stands out when its subjects are so fully formed by their environment already, and Bethencourt and Hill create a fascinating structure for the film in which the tough facade of each of the young women is showed to be earned — and admired — yet the product of incredible pain and survival instincts. Although the film is experiential, the aesthetic choices throughout from the deep blacks that outline even daytime scenes to savvy editing that subtly conveys memory and trauma are handled quite elegantly, making such difficult subject matter easier to stomach. Ultimately, the spirit of the young women carries the day in “Cusp,” as you hope it will in their lives ahead, and in taking a different angle than most, Bethencourt and Hill achieve a breakthrough of their own.

“Cusp” does not yet have U.S. distribution.