“I party every day and get drunk. It gives you something to do,” a 15-year-old girl named Brittney says in the first five minutes of Cusp, a new documentary from debut filmmakers Isabel Bethencourt and Parker Hill, about three teenagers living in a small Texas military town during a long, hot summer.
Bethencourt and Hill met their subjects, Brittney, Aaloni, and Autumn, while stopping for gas at 2:30am on a road trip. Hill and Bethencourt were working as PAs, returning an RV from a commercial shoot and wanted to photograph teens in the summer along the way. They photographed the girls and accepted their invitation to go swimming at their friends’ house in the middle of the night. After the road trip, something about the trio kept Bethencourt and Hill returning to learn more, eventually filming over 90 days what started as a short and became a feature-length documentary about girlhood — one that includes dark, raw conversations about trauma and assault as much as it includes first breakups and trying not to get caught partying.
“You can’t really have a movie about girlhood that’s a documentary that’s all sunshine and rainbows, because for the majority of girls, it does involve sexual assault and trauma and all these things that don’t really get talked about,” says Bethencourt. “But it did sort of happen organically, because we met these kids and were stuck by their crazy teenage energy and then just wanted to see what was going on and through hanging out and spending hours with them, discovered this larger story of what it means to grow up as a girl.”
The result is an immersive documentary that’s stunningly intimate, as if we’re the fourth, silent friend in the room watching the often very difficult and confusing lives of the girls unfold. The documentary is filled with lonely landscapes that include quiet shots of empty roads as much as fast food parking lots, dark bedrooms with unmade beds, or inside the houses of older boys having parties. The girls’ lives oscillate between danger and innocence. At one moment, they’re building sandcastles or piercing each other’s nipples; the next they’re snorting lines of cocaine with older boys or taking selfies while their friends shoot rifles in the background. It’s the confusing in-betweenness of being on the cusp of young adulthood.
Cusp premieres on Showtime on November 26.
What movie were you setting out to make?
Isabel Bethencourt: We didn’t really set out to make any movie at all. We met the girls and a bunch of their friends randomly one night at a gas station in the middle of the night, while Parker and I were on a road trip. We were keeping an eye out for photographs. We’re also photographers, so that was a part of the road trip we were on. We met them and sort of tumbled into their world. After we met them, we tried shooting a short film. We wanted to make a short observational documentary about American teenagers in the summer and what was going on. With every step of the process, we’d get home and be like there is more here that we’re not understanding and, we do want to go back and we do want to uncover it. It grew very organically. Eventually, we realized we did want to make a movie about girlhood and started to discover the lesser-known realities about what that really means. You can’t really have a movie about girlhood that’s a documentary that’s all sunshine and rainbows, because for the majority of girls, it does involve sexual assault and trauma and all these things that don’t really get talked about.
What was the road trip for? For fun or specifically to take photos?
Parker Hill: My friend produced a commercial and needed an RV returned from Montana to Texas so we were hired as PAs to drive it. We got per-diem and free flights and at that time and that age, we were like, we’ll do anything for that. In every town we stopped in along the way, we wanted to photograph teens in the summer. There wasn’t a great idea; we just wanted to talk to teenagers and see what an American summer looked like. In hindsight, we were jonesing for something to really sink our teeth into in a long form project, but at the moment we were like, “This is beautiful, let's go to a burger joint and talk to teens or whatever.”
It's a documentary that’s so intimate. It feels like you’re one of them and embedded in their lives. Was it difficult to build that trust or did they seem willing to share everything?
Bethencourt: I think the way we met them really lent itself to this fast friendship, because the night we met them and their friends, we started asking everyone, “What's it like to be you? What are you dealing with?” We wanted to ask open questions and let them say whatever they wanted. We weren't coming in with a judgement or a skew and being like, “But don’t you think that this is weird?” We were like, “Just tell us what it’s like.”
They were eager to jump in and have an ear for what they wanted to talk about, because I don’t think it happens a lot for teenagers to get to be heard for a second. I think because we met them, not like we were scouting a movie and wanted to make a film about something specific, the intimacy just built naturally because of a genuine connection. We also spent so many hours with them hanging out and doing whatever they wanted to do, going to McDonalds.
Hill: If you want to make friendship bracelets or go fishing, we just do it.
Another thing the documentary does really well is show the juxtaposition of innocence and danger. In one shot, they’re shooting guns and in another, they’re building sandcastles. Was that something you noticed right away, or a theme that emerged later?
Hill: That is something we would notice a lot in the moment. They’d be talking about scrunchies and say words like “school night” and “bedtime” and the same night use words about sexual assault or darker themes or more danergous things. It’s so crazy because both of those things are true and a part of what it is to be them and a part of what it is to be a girl from where they're from and what they’re going through. It stemmed from noticing it and then figuring out how to try and show it, because sometimes they'd be in the middle of a very dark conversation about something that happened to one of them and then someone would be like, “Pass the Dr. Pepper,” and then they’d just be off that topic and they never go back. If anything, in the edit, we had to slow time down and figure out how to allow the audience to linger on the gravity of some of these conversations because they don’t linger, they just speed by it.
Bethencourt: I think a lot of the girlhood experience, too, is grappling that line between childhood and adulthood, and often before you’re ready. It’s kind of decided for you when you get sort of thrown into these more adult situations, so we wanted to balance the truth of that balancing act they’re doing, between the carefree fun childhood and the heavier adulthood.
How do you feel like things have changed since we were 16, or have they?
Bethencourt: That's a great question. I think it’s funny because in some ways there’s some serious cultural differences in terms of social media. When I was 16, it was like first gen iPhones and I didn't have an Instagram, and now everyone is on Snapchat and Instagram and they're having conversations constantly and it’s not necessarily a distraction, it's an escape. So many times, kids will be chatting and they’ll be about to get to something serious and then they’ll just pop on their phones because they don’t know how to deal with it. They’ll just leave the room essentially, which I think is a quicker pace than we were both used to. In other ways, it feels like nothing’s changed.
In making this film, we’d look back and think about all the jokes we laughed off or the jokes people would make that everyone was cool with, or all the names people called girls that no one liked. All that stuff goes unchecked and then you grow up and grow out of that, but you don't reflect on it really and don’t realize the ways it perpetuates this cycle of sexism. I think Gen Z is sort of this “unknowable” thing, but they’re also going through things that all of us went through. I think framing them as being this “unknowable” generation also makes it harder for them to feel understood or seen, even though we all ultimately are going through the same stuff.
This theme of sexual assault and danger really does come through and kind of becomes the narrative. Was that intentional? Or did it just come up so often?
Hill: The way this film really got made, it was so organic, and it was about us responding to what we saw in footage that we recorded. So much of that first trip, where we thought this was going to be a short, we witnessed a couple of crazy conversations — one of them made the film — about a group of friends at a party talking about a girl getting raped and a guy dismissing it, saying, “Well if they’re both intoxicated, then it’s not rape.” That conversation is one of the big reasons, along with a few others, why we went back to ask questions about it and to try to understand, “Is that normal? What do you guys think about this?”
Through talking to a lot of the girls and spending time with them, not just the three main girls in the film, but others as well, opened up to us about non-consensual sexual experiences they had. There was a turning point for us after the trip where we realized that every single girl we’d spoken to had had a non-consensual sexual experience. It became part of the story we were telling, because they brought it up and because it was just this inextricable part of their stories. Telling a story about girlhood, you can’t ignore what they’re going through and this is what we learned they were going through.
What’s the response been like from the girls?
Bethencourt: It’s been great. It’s funny, because now it’s been a few years since we filmed and every step of the way, we were working with Souki Mehdaoui, who is an amazing subject relations coordinator, so she helped us. We would talk to her about framing conversations with them about how to introduce them to the fact that they’re going to be subjects in a documentary. We were editing and we’d show them scenes they were in, so by the time they saw the full cut, they had already seen the parts they were going to be in, so they weren’t watching the movie waiting to see what else was going to be showing.
Having discussions with them about why we're making the film, what we’re hoping the characters show, and explaining it’s not their whole life because it's only an hour and a half. and even then, they’re one of three. It does sort of build this greater message. They all got really excited about the potential of having other girls see the film and feel validated in their experiences in a way they wish they had been at their age. It’s cool because they've been getting DMs from girls who have seen the movie who are saying, “Thanks so much for being in this, this means a lot to me,” and it's great to see them step into an ownership role and embrace it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.