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'We were learning the whole time': 'Cusp' co-directors on capturing the aimlessness of being a teenage girl in small-town Texas

The new documentary, from Parker Hill and Isabel Bethencourt, debuted at Sundance before going on to win a Special Jury Award.

SAN ANTONIO — To press play on a coming-of-age movie – a “Lady Bird” or “Eighth Grade” or “American Graffiti” – is to revisit our own teenage experiences through the heightened drama and calculated stakes of Hollywood fiction. The break-up scene hits home because we know what that feels like; the inevitable war of words between parent and child stings because we may been in that position, at a point in time where we thought we knew everything—only to later realize how little we actually knew. Which is why that requisite scene of best friends making up grabs ahold of us, too. Filmmakers have it down to a science.

Then there’s “Cusp,” the new documentary from close friends Parker Hill and Isabel Bethencourt, which showcases a naturally aimless summer in small-town Texas through the lens of three teenage girls, themselves a tight-knit trio. Because there’s no guarantee of a happy ending – of a fist in the air as Simple Minds plays in the background – these girls’ relationships to their boyfriends, to their families and to each other has an engaging sense of immediacy. And they give off an energy so magnetic that it’s how Hill and Bethencourt were drawn to them in the first place, one hot Texas night while filling up at a gas station.

“Cusp” premiered recently premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival – which went virtual this year – and was later awarded the Special Jury Award for Emerging Filmmaker out the of U.S. documentary category, recognizing Hill and Bethencourt. Below, the co-directors reflect on spending time with Aaloni, Autumn and Brittany, the process of constructing a story about universal experience, and whether we might reconnect with the subjects at some point down the line.

(This interview has been edited for clarity.)

David Lynch: Y’all have talked about this really fascinating origin story with “Cusp” where you were traveling through Texas and stopped to refill your gas tank, and that’s when these girls came up and sorta blasted through the gas station and – as you’ve said before – you just knew you had to go over and talk to them. How much time passed between that night and when you came back and the cameras started rolling?

Parker Hill: Like a week?

Isabel Bethencourt: Yeah, less than most people would!

Lynch: Really, that’s it?

Hill: Yeah, because that night we took a lot of photographs and we recorded audio. At the end of the night, we got their Instagrams and they DM’d us so we could stay in touch. When we got back to New York, we ingested the photos and listed to the audio, because we were just asking them questions like, “What’s it like to be you?” And we were like, “I don’t know what it’s like to feel it, but we feel it. So let’s just do it.” So we messaged them and we were like, “Hey, I know this is weird, but what if we came back and made a short documentary about you?” And they were like, “Suuure.” (laughs) And so we booked flights and were there, yeah, less than a week later and started talking to parents, getting releases and everything like that.

Lynch: What was the day-to-day of the shoot like? Because with how broad a mosaic that his movie covers, I imagine it was very go-with-the-flow. But did you start any day with a checklist, would they hit you up and let you know, “Hey, we’re going here, you might want to tag along”? 

Bethencourt: Early on I think we would wake up and they, you know, they live on teenage hours, so they would (come home) at 3 or 4 in the morning and were waking up at 3 or 4 in the afternoon. So we would wake up and we would send out some texts – like early, early on – we’d send out some texts to see who was up, see who was around, go hang out with whoever was available. And then as we kind of focused in on the girls, we would wake up and text them, just follow them with wherever they were going with the day.

Hill: Yeah, whatever they were doing, we were doing.

Lynch: We see coming-of-age stories all the time in fiction. But this is non-fiction; this is reality. And the subject is just enormously broad. Y’all aren’t trying to capture a very, very specific narrative with these girls. You’re trying, it seems to me, to capture the universal experience through Autumn and Aaloni and Brittney. Was that liberating or was that a challenge?

Hill: Well, it’s funny because we didn’t set out to do that. I feel like the way that the story kind of came together, it just evolved organically and it evolved because we kept being interested. We would notice things and then kind of start to ask ourselves, “What is the cause of that? Why do they act a certain way?”

So the more that we looked, along the way we kind of came across certain categories, and the more that we would look into that or look into, you know, there are elements of sexual assault and rape culture, and there are elements of sexism, and there’s elements of childhood trauma. And the more that we started looking into certain things or asking them about it, the more we realized that so much of this is connected. So it wasn’t like we set out to do a huge topic; it was like an inquiry, almost. We were learning the whole time.

Lynch: So do you make those discoveries during the shoot? How much of that happens in the edit when you’re piecing the movie together?

Hill: There was definitely a lot of learning during the shoots, and then I think the edit had its own…yeah, we were learning so much in the edit. It’s a verité film and…we understood what we wanted to say but it took so long to figure out, like, how you’re going to say all of that? To an extent, the film still doesn’t even show as much as we would love and talk about…you can’t make a movie about everything.

Bethencourt: Yeah, a feature is actually a really short amount of time, and that was one of our biggest surprises.

Lynch: I can only imagine how many hours of footage you all gathered while shooting the day-to-day life of these girls—their interactions with each other, interactions with families, interactions when they’re by themselves. How do you know when you have enough? Was it as simple as you were on a timeline and you just tried to spend as much time as possible with them?

Bethencourt: A little bit, I mean, the scope of the story is definitely the summer, so at some point they went back to school. And then we would still come for some weekends at the beginning and end of the summer, but on the whole we knew we wanted to structure it in this way. So it just felt natural that when the summer ended, we stopped filming.

Hill: And towards the end of that summer we started to look at, like, knowing that that’s kind of what we wanted the scope to be, we would keep in mind: Where are we going to leave everybody? Looking back at it – in the moment, I’m not exactly sure how it happened – but looking back we did think about, you know, is everybody’s story going to be wrapped up by the end of summer. (But) it’s a verité film, so you even if you have ideas, you can’t force anything to happen. So we just kind of started to keep things in mind about how we would want to show them, stuff like that.

Lynch: It’s one thing to be in the audience, detached, in a certain sense, from watching these girls’ lives unfold. But I imagine there had to have been points where it was really hard to hold yourself back from stepping in and maybe helping them out. There are a couple moments where you see them start to do something that they might regret later on, but part of being a teenager is learning from your wrongdoing and the wrongdoing of others that have an impact on you. So how do you hold yourself back in certain points?

Bethencourt: I mean, it’s definitely a challenge in some vulnerable moments with the girls (where) you want to, you know, put down the camera and give them a hug. But you know that in that moment the thing you’re there to do, and the best thing to do for them, is to tell their story as compassionately as fully as you can. So a lot of times that means you wait a couple of minutes until you, you know…then you stop recording and then you run over and give them a hug. But in those moments, it’s important to keep doing your job.

Lynch: One of the most interesting things about these girls is that they seem like they could say anything with the camera rolling and they just really wouldn’t care. Were there ever any conversations, whether it was started by you or by any of them, about how they would like to be perceived?

Hill: Interesting question.

Bethencourt: Yeah, that’s a good question—I think it’s something that we were kind of…it would come up and disappear and come up again and it was sort of just an ongoing conversation with them in terms of how we were filming them and what that was going to look like. But especially with teenage girls, they’re very interested in (how they) were perceived (laughs). 

Hill: Yeah, how they look…but we shot a photo book along with the film, and pretty much all throughout when we were shooting, they would see all the photos and we would look at those scenes together and text them funny clips when we’re looking at the footage, when there’s a blooper and something like that. So it was an ongoing conversation, it wasn’t like a one-time thing.

Lynch: So I do have to obviously reckon with the fact that I’m a guy, and this is a story about three teenage girls. But I was still really drawn to their experiences and also kind of struck by how candid some of their conversations were about consent and sexual assault and the lingering effects of that. Now that the movie’s (premiered), do you have a certain audience in mind of who the movie might be for? And, along that vein, do you think there’s something that teenage guys might get out of it? 

Hill: Absolutely, yeah. Something that has always been on our minds throughout the whole process of making it is that we definitely did not want this story to demonize anyone or victimize anyone. And the more that we started to really study these topics and inquire and learn about them is understand how complicated it is. There’s no single cause and single effect. Everyone is participating in the same culture, and we all perpetuate the same habits and ideas about gender roles.

So we always wanted to make sure that the film, boys and men could benefit from it. That girls and women could absolutely identify with the characters and connect to some of their experiences. Hopefully we leave audiences in a place where, even though obviously most of the experiences are specific to girls, they’re also talking about trauma and how to handle it, how to handle your emotions, that it’s OK to have emotions. In some ways, the film is actually about masculinity even though the subjects are girls. And it’s about the way that everyone is taught to be strong and you can’t be vulnerable, and when it’s OK to start showing people how you’re feeling. So hopefully it’s something that a lot of people can identify with and reckon with how we treat each other.

Lynch: I’m curious about whether you’ve screened the movie to any teenage girls apart from the subjects, whether it’s relatives or anyone else?

Bethencourt: I’ve shown it to a couple close friends’ younger siblings who are 17, 18, 19. And it’s been really cool. I think it’d be fun to do a larger screening with a group of other teenage girls. But on the whole, their reactions so far have definitely been like, “Oh wow, I’ve never seen anything like this (in movies). I’ve never seen this kind of thing play out, I’ve never seen a girl plucking another girl’s eyebrows, and that’s like me and my friends on the weekends.” So it’s definitely been cool to see that (other girls’) experiences reflected in that.

Lynch: As you implied earlier, the story ends with them heading off to school. In a sense, it’s partly a new beginning but also a continuation of their experiences, but also an open-endedness. I was like, “I’d like to spend more time with them to see how they confront these challenges that are incoming.” Have you stayed in contact with them, do you think there’s any future where they might be interested in doing a follow-up?

Hill: We’re definitely still in contact with them. Sundance actually had a satellite screening in Dallas for the premiere, and we went; we’re good friends with them at this point. They’re definitely interested in another chapter…(laughs)

Bethencourt: In a follow-up, yeah (laughs). 

Hill: It’s not out of the realm of possibility.

Lynch: Did your own experiences ever influence the direction at all, or do you try to stray away from that?

Hill: Well, I mean, there’s no way you can’t, right? Even though we’re from different places and we’re teenagers in different decades, for sure, so many things are relatable. And so many things are amazing; you wish other people saw that, like, Autumn has a Lisa Frank notebook and you want people to know that Lisa Frank is still a thing. And a young sister asks their older sister what to wear and there’s so much – I’m a younger sister, sorry (laughs) – that you can’t not think about your own experiences.


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