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Dixie Chicks

Sundance Institute

Cusp (2021)

This is a really good movie about the fact that growing up takes forever, and the things you do the pass the time while it’s happening don’t matter much in the long run, except that nothing else in the world is more important. And the opening shot of the film makes it clear just how high the stakes are for the girls profiled in “Cusp”: two of them are lying on a swing, playing on their phones in their small (unidentified) Texas town, as a teenage boy of their acquaintance approaches to hang his machine gun from the branch of a tree.

“There is no normal in your teenage years,” is said early on, as a kind of motto for the film. But what directors Parker Hill and Isabel Bethencourt are trying to do is take their title literally. The girls – Brittney Marsh, Autumn Smalley, and Aaloni Cook – are 15 or 16, not quite able to take adult responsibility but able to make adult choices. There’s a lot of drinking and drugging, D.I.Y. piercing – thoughtfully filmed from the neck up, to focus on the pain instead of the body – and one extraordinary shot moments after Ms. Smalley has been dumped by her boyfriend, as she goes into shock, her whole body shaking, while she calls her dad.

Ms. Smalley’s dad loves his girl, and does his best to protect her even though he is on an oxygen tank and mostly housebound. For the summer this film covers, Ms. Marsh pretty much lives with them, since her relationship with her parents is bad and deteriorating fast. Ms. Cook’s mom, Michelle, with her dimple piercing and foul mouth, is their den mother and the parent who takes the most positive interest in the kids swarming in and out her door. She’s also the only adult who talks to the directors, about her marriage (dismal) and her love for her kids (enormous). Everyone hangs out on Michelle’s porch at dusk, giant citronella candles burning, to drink lite beer from the outside fridge and shoot the shit. The directors shot the footage themselves, clearly in the middle of things; their presence is accepted, but they are the adults in the room, know it, and somehow the girls are comfortable around them. This is proven by the sequence in the car Ms. Smalley accepts $50 over Venmo to watch a man jack off over her phone. The next shot is of the girls sitting on a curb, eating McDonald’s. The horror and the humor go hand in hand. You can tell from how the girls and their friends talk how delighted they are that someone is paying attention, even if the attention sometimes means thinking about tough questions. On the other hand, they are all aware they’re surrounded by people not doing much thinking at all.

The worst thing about being a teenage girl is that the world wants your body but couldn’t care less about your mind. Over the summer the girls learn a little more about what the world is like and the choices they are going to have. All three of them have experienced sexual violence and are resigned to being failed by their male friends and relatives on this front; at one point Ms. Cook leans forward confidentially and tells the camera there’s no point in saying no when a boy’s just going to do it anyway. It’s unutterably depressing, but the glimmer of hope is that they all have the language to talk about it and brag on how they’ve been raised to be strong. When the girls take turns making choices that feel like mistakes – Ms. Smalley smoking too much weed, Ms. Marsh getting a new, controlling boyfriend, and Ms. Cook bravely picking fights she can’t win with her awful dad – the others act with the resigned feminine solidarity anyone who’s ever been a shoulder to cry on knows. They are scared, and bored, and lonely, but also hopeful and excited about the future ahead of them.

While they are certainly not acting perfectly, they are trying to do the right things and taking care of themselves and each other. The town has nothing to offer them, and they know it, but they don’t have the ability to escape. The girls in the similar “All This Panic” were at least in the middle of New York City and didn’t need rides from unreliable men to get to the party. The girls in “All This Panic” also had plenty of money while the girls in “Cusp” live in a working-class town that knows how close it is to the bottom. It’s unspoken but the girls are therefore very careful not to make things worse. They know broken things can’t be replaced and broken people make life harder for everyone else. There’s so much to appreciate in this thoughtful, grotty, knowing movie, and audiences looking to learn about how young women get and keep their confidence should pay attention.


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