What’s it like to be a teenage girl in America?
The film focuses on three friends who live in a Texas military town, according to press notes. And while the town isn’t named and the last names of the girls are withheld, it’s rather obvious that the town is near Fort Hood, the biggest active-duty U.S. Armed Forces base in the country.
Bethencourt and Hill say they were traveling from Montana to Austin in an RV one a couple of summers ago when they stopped in a small town to fill up with gas. While they were there, at 2:30 a.m., a truck came swerving into the lot, and three girls emerged seemingly barefoot and carefree.
“I was awestruck and was like, ‘Oh, we have to talk to them,’ “ Bethencourt says. “So we struck up a conversation, and I asked to take their photo and they said, ‘Sure!’’ … We told them, ‘We’re photographers from New York. What are you guys up to?’ And they said, ‘Oh, we’re actually coming from a party. We’re going to a friend’s house to swim in the river. Do you want to come?’ “
So Bethencourt, in describing the event in press notes for the film, says they followed the girls and started talking with them about their lives. “And we were just very drawn to this crazy energy of the summer, and how free they felt.”
When the filmmakers returned to New York, they contacted the girls via Instagram and asked if they could come back and make a short documentary. “So we filmed with them for 10 days that summer, and it was incredible,” Hill says.
The result is “Cusp,” of course, and it’s probably not what you would expect — or at least not what most parents would hope to see.
The three girls are named Brittney, Aaloni and Autumn, but Brittney and Aaloni do most of the talking. The filmmakers follow them to summertime bonfire parties and swimming parties at the lake, hang out in the girls’ bedrooms and follow along on fast-food outings. One topic seem to come up a lot during these outings: Sex.
They’re only 15 and 16, so you’d think that at least one of them might be a virgin. Nope. Not only that: They talk about sexual assault quite casually, as if it’s a part of growing up. They also discuss the fate of a girl who was raped by her boyfriend, and wonder whether she should punish him by not having sex with him again for five months or so.
At a party with boys, the topic of rape comes up again, and one guy says that it’s not rape if both the guy and the girl are intoxicated. And yes, these teens get drunk a lot, and they smoke weed as well as cigarettes.
The movie is not judgmental, however. The filmmakers just follow the girls as they party throughout the summer evenings. It also shows them at home, doing chores and coping with family problems.
And if you’re wondering, the parents do not object to the filming of their girls. Hill says there wasn’t any pushback from the parents. “Everyone was understanding pretty quickly,” she says. “The general attitude at first was ‘Why do you think this is interesting?’“
What the filmmakers realized, however, was that they had a story of “rape culture, toxic masculinity, trauma and agency.”
For what it’s worth, the filmmakers say the girls are doing fine and looking forward to college. “We started showing them the film, and our subject coordinator, Souki Mehdaoui, has helped us get them used to seeing themselves on screen. We catch up often,” Hill says.
Still, a lot of folks will find “Cusp” more than a little disturbing. It’s tough being a teenager, as we all know. And it’s even tougher to accept that sexual assault is almost a given — at least for these three girls.
“Cusp” screened at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Showtime has picked up the rights to the film and plans to show it later this year on its network.