Sundance 2021 Critic’s Notebook (Vadim Rizov and Abby Sun): Cusp and Close
We’ve been Gchatting through our initial Sundance 2021 reactions in between filing festival coverage proper, so it only seems logical to finish out this year by doing a direct handoff in public view. While our experiences were complementary, we had different timelines and levels of willingness to engage. You tried out a good chunk of New Frontier material and went to virtual gatherings in avatar form; true to usual IRL form, I kept a skulking low profile. Our coverage overlapped a few times online (thanks, by the way, for getting into the political dimensions of El Planeta I hollowed out from my almost embarrassingly formalist review).
I think we spent the most time, though, arguing about Parker Hill and Isabel Bethencourt’s joint feature debut, Cusp—not from pro/con positions, but for differently ambivalent-to-negative responses, and because it seems representative of a number of current nonfiction trends with implications beyond this year’s Sundance. Cusp (which picked up a Special Jury Prize, Emerging Filmmakers) is a summer’s-long portrait of three teenage girls—Brittney, Aaloni and Autumn—in a (conspicuously unnamed) small Texas town. The primary subject is sexual abuse and cyclical trauma, and the film is very on-task in making it the focus of nearly every scene. The girls share stories about feeling unsafe at parties, coercion and rape. Aaloni’s mom is seen talking on the phone about how there’s no point in trading in an “old asshole” for a “new asshole,” while her dad is heard, not seen, tyrannizing his family. Opening and closing montages aside (whose vagueness I’ll address in a second), the movie knows exactly the story it wants to tell, save one shot that popped out at me precisely because it had nothing to do with anything else: a group of fast-food workers after-hours at the Dairy Queen stand outside, changing the letters on the marquee, when one spontaneously breaks into a cartwheel. There’s a lot of partying scenes, soundtracked by Lil Peep and responsibly depicted as no fun—establishing shots quickly give way to even more captured shots of drunk girls being preyed on by older men.
To the extent that Cusp is edited with a deftness that I think avoids insulting either the audience or its subjects, I’m willing to accept the film’s sliver-of-town portrait—it’s absolutely not hard to believe life’s rough out there. And because I enjoy teens being salty, I wasn’t unengaged or antagonistic at any point while watching. Cusp’s standout scene, both by design and realized in actual execution, is also its most sustained, as Autumn gets her nipples pierced by Aaloni in a room surrounded by their friends. Autumn braces herself, is talked through what’s about to happen by Aaloni, who herself is nervous, then the iffy sterilization-and-piercing starts. At this moment, several things are happening. We’re not seeing something recollected but enacted — if you’re nervous about sharp objects the effect is going to be visceral no matter what and, most importantly, whoever’s operating the camera at that moment (Hill and Bethencourt took turns) is forced to make decisions in real time about what to include in the frame, if only for legal reasons: for the gaze to slip below shoulder height would be, for obvious reasons, a total nightmare.
I’m from Texas, but strictly an urban kid and so have zero personal insight on what it’s like to grow up in the kind of town depicted here. And I have no doubt that the numerous editorial decisions made about how to hone on the primary story (I counted a half-dozen-plus editors in the credits) were made in good faith: this is how Hill and Bethencourt perceive the emotional truth of life on the ground there, and who am I to say they’re wrong? But there’s a weird lack of specificity to the larger project: beyond the numerous and horrifying anecdotes, we don’t get much sense of who the girls are when they’re not dealing with or processing trauma, or what life might be like in literally any part of town where people aren’t always after-hours partying.
What finally set off alarm bells for me wasn’t so much the opening montage (a chorus of teen voices reiterating the sentiment “everything can change so fast/be crazy/dramatic,” which is pretty generic) as the ending one. We’ve just witnessed a collection of testimonies captured in ostensibly verite settings, and there’s no reason for any optimism, yet the climactic montage is of its subjects in various group hugs or on fun days hanging out. Everything’s going to be OK because solidarity and female friendship, an implication that seems completely divorced from everything that’s preceded it. I thought of 2016’s All This Panic, which captures a (much more well-off/NYC) group of teen girls, compressing four years into 79 minutes (including credits!)—its volatile pacing through a series of hangout moments, condensed from longitudinal immersion, makes its similar closing montage feel earned. Cusp, while a well-crafted example of this type of film, does strike me as pre-fab; I’m pretty positive we’ll be seeing many similar portraits of some rural/urban milieu or other in which messy realities are swept away in generic conclusions. But I’m missing a key point of reference here, because I know the film made you think of Rich Hill, which I haven’t seen. So, what about Cusp strikes you as symptomatic of larger storytelling trends? I know you have some other objections I haven’t touched on yet. And thank you for throwing your voice into our mix this year!
At in-person Sundances, I’d be catching up with folks in a shuttle on our way to the SLC airport, so it seems only appropriate, besides the extension of our gchats, to end this virtual Sundance in a slower, epistolary form. My Sundance 2021 was indeed marked by a flurry of panels and virtual experiences, but I’m also someone who throws on a Twitch livestream for background noise instead of watching a TV show or doomscrolling through their Netflix queue, so that only seems to be in character.
My resistance to Cusp, like you, stems from the incongruity of the friendship that’s depicted, as well as the many off-the-cuff discussions of sexual assault, domestic violence, and general negligence that characterizes this film’s focus. It’s not that I think the sense of what’s being shown is “not true.” What I’m questioning is how the film does that, and how it really doesn’t jive with my sense of what observational cinema can be. Cusp’s transitions, as well as the opening and closing montages, are mostly comprised of short, handheld, static shots using a lot of photojournalistic shorthand for icons of poverty—beer cans in chain-link fences, shoes hanging from telephone wires—and the neatly bow-wrapped concluding voiceovers don’t help matters.
There’s also a disturbingly casual nonchalance to how the Confederate flag appears in a bedroom. During the Sundance post-premiere Q&A, an audience member asked a question about this flag and whether the filmmakers had conversations with their subjects about “the race crisis in America.” Hill and Bethencourt responded, in full: “It was something that didn’t come up often in their life. So as a verité film, [those conversations] didn’t show up in the movie. The movie was filmed in 2019. We’ve had a lot of conversations this past summer, but back then it wasn’t in the cultural conversation in the same way.” It’s unclear what “it” is—conversations about race? Confederate flags?—but I’m utterly confused about how image-makers, even for a first feature, don’t have a more careful consideration of the effects of iconography in their images at all stages of production. These images are easy and familiar precisely because so many journalists and documentary filmmakers are relying on these shortcuts, which only further entrenches them.
I’m also interested in something I see developing in documentary filmmaking in the US that claims the verité heritage: the over-emphasis on the signifying powers of singular images. I know I may be over-generalizing from knowing Hill and Bethencourt’s photographic background, but it seems to me to be coming from a devotion to this idea in still photography of privileging the “decisive moment,” which has long been pummeled into the ground in the photo world. Hill, Bethencourt and their editors edit almost exclusively in short clips, their dialogue cut together with copious cutaways that take advantage of the overabundance of images. That does render zeitgeist-y ideas and one-line zingers about rape culture in an efficient way. It wasn’t so long ago that we were all critical of documentaries that had that Levi’s “America (Go Forth)” campaign (directed by Cary Fukunaga) look. Cusp pays more attention to blocking and the spatial relationships between its characters than that, granted, but the quick cutting still reduces the scenes to brief representations, and are not invested in the living, breathing rhythms of just being with Brittney, Aaloni and Autumn. This seems, to me, a breach of the potential of observational practice—which, unlike the work of these filmmakers, doesn’t preclude more interventionist practices.
The other thing I’m curious about is the way Cusp, as you put it, remains “on-task.” This would be one thing if it were an innocuous topic, like an advertorial focus on someone’s love for houseplants. Given, however, that this film tackles rape culture and the predatory nature of older boys towards teenaged girls, this tracks slightly differently. With the short scenes, all of their audio conversations become merely evidentiary. How many ways do we need to hear these three girls talking about rape and coercion to understand its prevalence in their lives before it tips the scales into normalizing the very thing that the film is supposed to be criticizing? That’s a thin line to walk. The cumulative effect is reductionist: this is not a public interest ad, it is a distillation of the real lives of its participants. In this way, I see the observational form being used to simplify rather than render complexity. To be clear, this isn’t a function only of the short cuts in the film—there are plenty of films that make use of this editing strategy which also broaden their subjects’ sense of being. So, I draw a line in the sand: films should not strive to participate in wedging verbal encounters into narrow thematic narratives we find so problematic in “mainstream media.”
I mentioned Rich Hill to you partially because I suspected that your relationship, as someone who grew up in Texas, is to the small military town of Cusp as my relationship, as someone who grew up in Missouri, is to the eponymous Rich Hill of that film—which is to say, none but relative geographical proximity. I am sympathetic to criticisms that films made by outsider filmmakers (as Hill and Behtencourt are to their town) should take careful consideration in their depiction of place, especially in a region like the US South, but I also believe that longitudinal character studies can overcome that by investing in the specificity of relationships. Unfortunately, for Cusp, only the nipple piercing scene really gives me a sense of how these three friends interact with each other in an extended scene. For all of its uncomfortable gaze and skirting of underage nudity, I wished for more scenes that better triangulated their friendship.
Another reason I think Rich Hill is an apt comparison is because that film, though edited with more of an eye towards duration than Cusp, also depoliticizes the poverty and trauma of its subjects. That film deliberately followed three participants who were not friends—they were of different ages and represented disparate characters whose situations could be compared. Cusp doesn’t attempt that, which is okay by itself, because Hill and Bethencourt met Brittney, Aaloni and Autumn as a fully-formed trio and ran with their choice of subject. The unfortunate thing is that they squander the opportunity presented before them to tease out the dynamics of girlhood friendship. (To be clear, Cusp is not the only recent documentary I’ve seen that edits out its characters’ personalities.)
As for what I think filmmakers should instead aspire to: I think of Joel DeMott and Jeff Kreines’ Seventeen, winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance 1985. It’s a raw, deliberate, epic and utterly mundane year in the lives of a group of working-class teens in Muncie, Indiana. Like Cusp, Seventeen is recorded and edited by a two-person team, but DeMott and Kreines filmed and recorded their own sound separately—DeMott with the girls, Kreines with the boys. It also trains its lens on sexual politics in high school, interracial dating, racism, drug use, but with a rooted sense of place, a sharp awareness of racial and class politics, and genuine curiosity about relational dynamics. It has far fewer scenes, but the pace never feels slow—it engages specifically and deeply every time, and as a result, is far more revelatory and life-affirming about how its participants act, respond, and feel. Is it enough for a documentary film to feel “true”?