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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

Cusp Is a Shockingly Intimate Look at Teenagers Navigating Sexual Violence

We talked to the filmmakers behind the Showtime documentary, which follows three girls as they come of age under the ever-present specter of sexual assault.

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Image for article titled Cusp Is a Shockingly Intimate Look at Teenagers Navigating Sexual Violence
Image: Showtime Documentary Films

“I never wanted to lose my virginity, but it just happened,” says one of the teenaged subjects of the new documentary Cusp. “The whole time I was like, ‘Fuck, what am I doing? Okay, we’re going to say, ‘No.’ One, two, three—.’” She cuts herself off, making a noise that sounds as though a word has made its way out of her throat only to be caught against closed lips. “I just couldn’t say no,” she concludes. “I don’t really know why. I just was so scared to say no.”

The film, which is now streaming on Showtime, offers a verité-style examination of one summer in the lives of Aaloni, Brittney, and Autumn, 15- and 16-year-old friends growing up in an unnamed Texas town. It’s at once a languorous and harrowing portrait of teenage life, with trips to beaches and lakes, backyard parties, fast food runs, and tallboys against a backdrop of lushly-filmed sunsets. The three girls at the center of the documentary contend with familial struggles, navigating relationships with parents whose own lives have been shaped by substance use and PTSD. Then there are the boys they mix with—young men on the other side of 18, some of whom carry and deploy firearms with casual ease.

In conversations with the filmmakers, Parker Hill and Isabel Bethencourt, the girls return again and again to the topic of sexual assault, sharing accounts of violence endured in earlier childhood, and efforts to negotiate the sexual power imbalances between themselves and the young men they date. One rape within their friend group is discussed with near nonchalance. “That’s funny, because whenever he came over to our house that one time and spent the night, he tried doing shit with me,” says Aaloni of the accused rapist. “But then when I told him my age, he was like, ‘Oh wait, age doesn’t matter, it’s just a number.’”

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“Dang, he really out here raping kids,” she finishes, and the girls move on to discussing an upcoming party. Assault is treated as a grim fact of life, something to be avoided, but not something truly escapable.

But the documentary isn’t uniformly dark. It’s also filled with all the tender intimacies of girlhood, as the teens attempt to brush the snags out of each other’s hair and loll around on each other’s beds, often soundtracked to the music of the late Lil Peep, one of their favorite artists. In one memorable scene, Aaloni gives Autumn a nipple piercing, as friends surrounding them gasp and giggle.

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“I feel like I just made a mistake,” Autumn laughs in the aftermath, holding a beer can to her chest to soothe the wound. “But it’s fine, I make many of those.”

I spoke to Hill and Bethencourt about the making of Cusp, and they explained that they met the girls while on a road trip. During a late night gas stop, they encountered the kids, who pulled up in a pickup, music blaring. They asked to photograph them, and the teens invited the pair to a party.

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Later, after returning home to New York, the filmmakers contacted the youths and proposed making a documentary about them. Upon talking to everyone’s parents, the duo began filming.

Our interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Not just the main girls, but their friends, boyfriends, and parent all seem really comfortable with the cameras and with your presence. How did that happen?

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Hill: It definitely happened over time. We shot this movie on and off over the course of 90 days. We would go for a trip and then go home for a couple weeks. So, the amount of time that we’ve known them was quite long. I feel like for the rest of our lives we’re going to be asked like, “How’s everyone so comfortable,” and it’s either a testament to us or them or the perfect combination, because I don’t know—they were just into it.

Bethencourt: And I think it was a genuine connection and a friendship that was born. We were not so much older than they were, I think we were 24 and 25 when we met them. And so we bonded over the experience of youth and girlhood, and the universal elements of how hard it is to be a teenager in all the emotional and literal ways. And also when you spend so much time in town, you wind up seeing everyone a lot. And then you also wind up kind of becoming involved like, “Oh yeah, we’ll pick this person up from school,” or “We’ll go run to the grocery store for you.” Inevitably you become sort of—

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Hill: Just in it.

I thought I remembered my teen years well, but watching this film made me realize that there were so many things I’d forgotten. The way the girls are always leaning on each other, touching each other—that just seems like something that went away in adulthood. Was there anything that you saw in them that reminded you of something that you might have forgotten from girlhood?

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Bethencourt: As you get older, it becomes weirder to [take] someone you’ve met when you were 20 to throw your legs on their lap. I think we had a lot of nostalgic moments for the kind of comfort and the inevitability of friendship in teenagehood, and how you basically do have this second family that you can rely on and that you bond with. And there are things that you can share with them and things that you guys can talk about that you can’t talk about with anyone else. I think that’s always been the case and probably always will be.

Hill: Yeah, also the dynamics between them totally reminded me of my friends. There’s the girl that knows how to dress, or says she knows how to dress. And we listen to whatever she does. Or someone who says they know how to pierce things—

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Bethencourt: Eyebrows. The eyebrow friend is huge.

You mentioned things that you can talk about with you can only share with your friends in youth, and it reminded me of the ways in which the girls so frankly talk about consent issues and sexual assault. Did you always know that this was going to be a major theme in the film?

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Hill: It’s always been a guiding force that propelled each trip. There’s a party that was filmed on our first trip where a group of friends are talking about something that happened to a girl and this one guy [says], “Well, they were both intoxicated and it’s not rape if they’re both intoxicated.” Conversation moves a mile a minute, but once we were home and we were watching the footage, we were like, “Wait, oh my gosh.” Like, “They just dismissed that, shoved it down, and kept talking about nothing.” So moments like that really propelled our interest and questions that we had for everybody on the next trip. We just kept getting more information that helped us understand how widespread this was, how ubiquitous it was. The more time we spent with the girls, they opened up to us about what they had been through. We were home and digesting the footage and we were like, “Wait, every girl that we’ve met has had something happen.”

Do you think that this is something that these young women talk about a lot outside of your presence? Because it seemed like they had some well developed ideas around all of these issues.

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Bethencourt: I think definitely yes, because a lot of them knew each other’s stories, or sometimes we would hear stories about other girls that they were friends with. We’d just be driving and they would tell us. And so they definitely do open up to each other, but there also is this kind of inevitability. Like, “We know not to go over there so what was she expecting?” It’s very interesting to see their reaction and to realize what it means for something to be normal, for it to not be shocking anymore. And for it to just be a normal part of growing up in a lot of places—I think in most places.

Hill: I think something that also shocked was how it isn’t that hidden. It’s actually talked about often, out loud. It’s said. There is obviously this hidden layer of pain that everyone works to push down, and to say, “I’m strong. I’m not weak. I’m not a victim.”

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Hill and Bethencourt
Hill and Bethencourt
Image: Showtime Documentary Films

You don’t use last names or tell viewers the name of the town, I imagine to protect your subjects. Could you tell me more about any steps you took to protect them and help understand what it means to be in a documentary like this?

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Bethencourt: We started working with this woman, Souki Mehdaou. She came up with the title, but in our film it’s called the Subject Relations Consultant. And she has experience in front of and behind the camera. She’s an incredible filmmaker in her own right, but she also was instrumental in framing our understanding of how to talk to them about the fact that they were going to be in the film, and how to begin to show them footage in a way that was respectful, thoughtful, and responsible because we really wanted them to like it, and we wanted them to be okay with everything.

So, we wound up showing them things in stages while we were still in the edit. We would show scenes in parts and then have conversations with them specifically about, “What is this scene? What does it do in the film? What’s the film really about? Why do we want to make this?” And, “What story is this telling and adding up to?” and, “Do you have any questions and is there anything you’re uncomfortable with?” And so we really had this kind of open dialogue towards the end of the edit, as we got nearer to our final cut and really brought them into that process.

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Hill: Suki was really incredible. It made us realize that we had taken documentary film classes at film school, we’ve done a bunch of labs, had mentors, done grant programs, and nowhere in those processes does anyone tell you how you show your subjects the movie. It’s the beginning of a new relationship. Before, we’re all hanging out, we’re all filming, but now, in some ways, they’re a little bit of a character in a story you’re telling just by the nature of the relationship. And it was so incredible to have her guide us through that, make us feel like it’s okay that you don’t know how to do this, but do it, show it to them, have conversations, have them be okay with it, because so many filmmakers skip that step. And then on the protecting front, we changed some names through ADR, and we re-recorded some things to protect people’s privacy and worked with lawyers to make sure that everyone was comfortable with the information that was shared.

Bethencourt: And then we also started working with this amazing organization, the Texas Advocacy Project, who came on after the release. They really work to provide free legal and mental health services to young women and women in Texas. They’ve been a resource for the girls.

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Are you still in touch with the girls? How are they doing?

Bethencourt: Aaloni just FaceTimed us yesterday in the middle of a science class. The short answer is, yes.

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Hill: [Holds her phone up to the camera to show a picture of Aaloni smiling while holding a dissected fetal pig.] She calls us and she’s like, “How long do you think the intestines are?” They were like seven feet. There were a lot of intestines.

Bethencourt: They’re doing great. Autumn and Brittney both graduated high school in the winter and they’re both applying to college for this winter year. [They] also have full time jobs, so they’re saving up for college, and we’re making an appointment with Aaloni to discuss her Common App.

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Hill: It’s been really great. I mean, our film came out last Friday, but since it went live, it’s been really incredible to see them feel really empowered. So many girls are reaching out to them. Brittney got a DM this morning from someone who saw it in their college class and was like, “Thank you so much for speaking up. I’ve been through something similar and you’re so brave,” and it’s been really great to see them, I think, share the feeling of feeling validated, that what [they’re] going through is a real experience.