What do you do when there’s nothing to do? School is out for the summer, parents aren’t around, there’s no curfew in place, and boredom is setting in. Work isn’t an option. Even if a summer job sounded remotely appealing, it’s not like anyone’s hiring 15- and 16-year-olds in the first place. (Honestly, nobody’s hiring adults, either.) Hobbies and sports and extracurriculars cost money, so they’re out, too. Besides, who’d be able to drop off and pick up without a car? Riding bikes down to McDonald’s is always a possibility, maybe get something to eat. That would only kill an hour at most, though. Hey, the gas station’s not far from there. It wouldn’t be more than a 20-minute walk. That could be fun. Plus, it’s closer to where the party’s at — that abandoned trailer out there, the one down the outer road a ways behind all those trees. Dad said no, but if he really cared, he’d fix the lock on the window. He’ll be too drunk to hear someone sneak out anyway.
Such is life in the small Texas military town at the center of Isabel Bethencourt and Parker Hill’s debut documentary, Cusp. With little to no adult supervision, an absence of the real-world responsibilities that keep their parents busy, and a complete lack of any sort of guidance, the town’s teenagers are essentially left to their own devices during the summer months. From the last day of school to the first day back, anything goes. Anything. Beyond the late nights and the dearth of accountability, there are key roles for violence, drugs, guns, and alcohol in this dynamic. Older boys firing automatic rifles into a mound of dirt. Younger girls downing enormous beers twice the size of their heads. Crushed-up anxiety pills snorted off a dusty coffee table. Four Loko cans and bags of chips crinkling and crunching underneath feet in checkered Vans. An assault out back, two teens throwing punches while they roll around in the dead grass, while a new relationship begins on the torn couch in the living room.
By the time Bethencourt and Hill showed up, Autumn, Brittney, and Aaloni had already been immersed in this lifestyle for quite some time. When kids defend themselves by saying, “Everybody else is doing it,” they’re usually talking about their immediate friend group. Here, it’s the truth: Everybody else really is doing it. It’s hardly a choice, getting swept up in the debauchery and the chaos and the substances and the vehemence of it all. Over and over again, Cusp’s main trio repeats similar sentiments: They didn’t want to drink. They didn’t want to smoke. They didn’t want to go to the party. They didn’t want to fire the gun. They didn’t want to lose their virginity. It just ... happened.
Bethencourt and Hill have nothing explicit to say about all this, for better or worse. Shot in vérité style, completely lacking the talking-head interviews where experts dryly recite statistics to highlight the wrongness of these activities, Cusp simply presents the audience with what is happening in a way that feels more honest and raw than any numbers or figures could ever be. Autumn, Brittney, and Aaloni are almost constantly in dangerous situations, whether they know it or not, but the directors maintain their fly-on-the-wall perspective through it all. All the while, this material is intercut with some achingly lovely shots of sunset and nature, a constant reminder of the beauty that lies in the world beyond this little burg. The flora and fauna in these interludes serve another function, too: They are an indication that the depravity depicted here is not exclusive to Texas. It’s happening in every rural area across the country.
Obviously, representation doesn’t always equal an endorsement, and the film is certainly not an endorsement. Still, there will be plenty who feel that Cusp is exploitative (if not flat-out unethical), and the blame will land on the shoulders of Bethencourt and Hill specifically. Their camera captures months and months’ worth of footage of minors doing drugs, chugging alcohol, helplessly dealing with suffocating unresolved trauma, actively being groomed by boys at least three or four years their senior. It’s easy to blame the only adults in the room for what’s happening on screen, but it’s not fair and it’s not right. In fact, it’s completely misplaced. Adolescence in the 21st century, when young brains are subjected to more information and more stress and more stimuli than any generation prior, is unlike anything their elders have grappled with before. Bethencourt and Hill should not be blamed for what’s shown but commended for skillfully shining light on the darkness no one seems willing to talk about.
The four Lil Peep songs featured in Cusp aren’t just an attempt to re-create the soundtrack of these teens’ summer — they’re an exemplification. In the years since the SoundCloud rapper’s 2017 accidental overdose on fentanyl and Xanax, his lyrics about grappling with mental-health struggles and drug abuse have continued to resonate with those who reside on the line between adolescence and adulthood and feel as though there’s nothing in front of them (and just as little behind them). “I’m never, ever, evereverever coming back here,” Brittney mutters in a moment of frustration, but the tragedy Lil Peep so often touched on, and Bethencourt and Hill have now captured on film, is that there’s rarely a way out without assistance. Cries for help go unheard when they fall on ears in the same position, searches for opportunities come up empty when there’s nothing to find, and pastimes like Autumn’s painting or Aaloni’s wrestling can’t truly save them from their circumstances if no one’s presenting them with the opportunity to do so. Autumn, Brittney, and Aaloni — along with a significant number of small-town American Zoomers like them — aren’t looking for a handout. They’re looking for an outstretched hand.
Cusp was reviewed from a virtual screening at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. A release date for the film has not yet been announced.