Not long after graduating from NYU, Parker Hill and Isabel Bethencourt found themselves on something of a spontaneous road trip through the middle of America. With cameras in hand, they set out to use the trip as an opportunity to capture images of summertime teen life. A chance encounter in the summer of 2019 opened the door to what would become Cusp, an award-winning documentary about three teenage girls, Brittney, Autumn, and Aaloni in rural Texas.
With surprising maturity and candor, the three young women at the center of the story, along with the young men and relatives in their lives, share their hopes, laughter, and a sometimes shockingly honest assessment of the wonders and perils of American youth. The film premiered at Sundance Film Festival in January 2021 where directors Parker Hill and Isabel Bethencourt won the US Documentary Grand Jury Prize for Emerging Filmmakers and were also nominated for the Grand Jury Prize.
I recently spoke with Hill and Bethencourt about their experiences, maintaining relationships with their subjects, and their hopes for the future of female-centric story telling.
Karen Peterson/We Live Entertainment: Let’s just jump in, first of all with: how did this get started?
Parker Hill: Izzie and I are both photographers. We met at NYU. We were on a road trip a couple summers ago, from Montana to Texas. A friend of mine was producing a commercial that had an RV and she needed an RV returned in three days, and we were hired as PAs to return this RV. On the road trip, we wanted to capture American youth in the summer, whatever that means. We met some kids along the way. But our last night in town at a gas station at, like, 2:30 in the morning, we were exhausted and ready to return this RV, and a pickup truck comes swerving in, music is blasting, four girls hop out of the cab. They’re barefoot. They’re just laughing and having a blast. It was a sleepy, middle-of-nowhere gas station. And this just woke us up. We were like, “Oh my god, this is what we’ve been looking for.” In hindsight I feel like we felt that. In the moment, it was just, we have to talk to them and take a photo and hang out.
We got to talking and they were great, and they actually ended up inviting us back to their friend’s house and we ended up hanging out with this whole friend group all night. We were really drawn to their carefree summer night. It kind of felt like a scene out of a movie. Just the epitome of a summer night. And we were so drawn to their energy. So that’s how this got started.
Isabel Bethencourt: Yeah, we took their photo, we wound up hanging out. I think we also were very interested in the juxtaposition between the freedom that they so clearly had to do whatever they wanted on a summer night and were truly just living their lives — their best lives, as you would say — and then also the kind of wherewithal they had, and the maturity they had about how they spoke about what they were going through, what they were dealing with. Because we were speaking with their larger friend group that night. We’re asking questions, “What’s it like to be you?” and “How does it feel to be 18, or 16, or 15?,” or whatever it was, because the group had a diverse age range. They all felt like they had to grow up too fast, or they were dealing with something pretty heavy. And they also spoke with a kind of understanding and maturity about it. We were both drawn to learn more about them and their outlook and what it was like to be them.
PH: We stayed in touch and made plans to go back. And that’s how this got started.
KP: With the maturity level of these girls, I was really struck by the insight they have into the realities of the world they live in. As you were talking to them and getting to know them, what were some of the things that really surprised you?
IB: It’s funny, when you think of something as being normalized or normal, it’s hard to actually understand what that means until you’re in the room. Because when we first went, we were hanging out with a larger friend group, guys and girls, and we were often hanging out with the girls at a guy’s house, and we were filming and hanging out, playing video games, whatever it was. It wasn’t until we got back to New York — where we are — and we were watching the footage and we really started to see that there was this invisible, underground power dynamic at play. When you’re in the room, you actually don’t really feel it. You’re sort of like, “Oh, it’s just a bunch of friends hanging out.” Then you go home and you start to realize what it actually is for something to be so normal, for it to feel normal, even when we’re in it.
PH: Some of what was really shocking was hearing these conversations, and that everyone just dismisses them pretty quickly. From our first trip there’s a scene where a bunch of friends are at a party and they’re talking about something that happened to this girl. One guy says, “Well, they were both intoxicated, and it’s not rape if they’re both intoxicated.”
From that first trip, honestly, the stuff that really shocked us the most in reviewing the footage was how casually and often conversations of rape and sexual assault came up. [On] our first trip, we thought this was going to be a short film. And it blew our minds how normal they spoke about these topics, so we knew we wanted to keep going back and talk to people about it and ask what they thought. That’s when a lot of the girls started to open up about what they had been through. It took us a while to understand that the reason people can speak with such certainty and matter-of-fact about these topics, the reason they sound like they’ve been through a lot is because they’ve been through a lot. And, yeah, that was very shocking to learn.
KP: When you approached them about the idea of turning their summer into a documentary, what were their reactions? And also, how did you get their parents on board?
IB: They were like, “Cool, let us know, that sounds great.” We had photography cameras with us, but then we were like, “We’re gonna bring a video camera and just hang out and film a summer.” And they’re like, “Great, let us know when you’re in town.” Pretty immediately all the guys who we met at that time were over 18, so they all signed their own releases. Then when we got to town, we met all the families and explained who we were and what we were interested in, which was pretty broad at the time. As it got more specific, we kept them in the loop. They were all like, “Okay, if that’s interesting to you guys, go for it.” And we were like, ‘Yeah, it is really interesting!”
PH: Part of the first reaction was like, “Us? Really? Are you sure?” And they were like, “Okay, we’re from the middle of nowhere, but sure.”
KP: These girls all have such specific and interesting personalities. It’s such a fascinating group of kids. When did you decide you wanted to do vérité style?
PH: From the beginning, we did know that we wanted it to be vérité. We did interview everybody. Pretty much every trip, each girl had couple hour long interviews. We ended up cutting it to not include that much interview, and we used some voiceover from the interviews. In hindsight, I feel like the interviews actually ended up being so incredibly invaluable to us understanding them and understanding how they thought about certain things. The edit ended up being a little more observational, but the filming was a mix of everything.
KP: What was it like just being in the room with them? You mentioned the power dynamics that you saw later on, but just on a normal weeknight, what was it like being in the room with these kids?
IB: It’s pretty fun. It’s funny because we shot for 90 days, we wound up with I think about 200 hours of footage, 250 maybe. And a lot of that is like watching TV and hanging out —
PH: Having McDonald’s —
IB: We’re not that far in age from them. I think we had just recently graduated college, or were a few years out of college when we met, and it felt like we were so far from their experience that it was sort of fun to be like, “Oh, remember when we were teenagers, you get to hang out on the weekend and you don’t have to work?” It was mostly a lot of really fun hanging out and we would have long conversations and get to know each other and share. That also is the basis for a lot of the scenes, too, that feeling of we’re just all gonna hang.
KP: Was there ever a moment where you kind of felt a little bit big sister like, “Oh, no, please don’t do that!”
PH: The nipple piercing! To really understand it is to know that’s one of four piercings that we filmed. And one of two that happened that night. Small town, there’s not much to do. It’s just what they do. But no, on the whole it’s big sister, it’s camp counselor, but it’s also being someone’s friend. As a girl, there’s only so much you can say because people have to go through it themselves, you know? Growing up, I had a friend who would cut her hair before she would go out and I’m like, “It’s never gonna be a good idea. Just don’t do it. No one can cut their own hair.” There definitely were a lot of those moments.
KP: Have you kept in touch with with everyone?
PH: We go back to town often. Brittney graduated in the spring, Aaloni went to prom. We’re going back a lot, but everyone’s doing well. Aaloni is a senior right now and she’s on the wrestling team. And her sister joined the wrestling team, which is great. She’s teaching her pointers and stuff.
IB: Brittney and Autumn both graduated high school in 2021 and now they have full time jobs, but they’re also looking to apply to college in the winter, which is very exciting for us.
KP: Watching these girls, I thought they have so much potential, I hope that they know that.
IB: Mm hmm, definitely. I think that’s one of our goals, too. There’s many, many stories of coming-of-age for young men, and especially young men in America looking to make a name or get out of their small town, quote-unquote. But I think there is room for many more female coming-of-age stories and getting to see teenage girls holding the potential that we see in teenage boys, and inspiring other girls to feel like they are valid, they’re not alone in their experiences. And it doesn’t stop them from being hopefully inspired or, they can do anything they want, no matter where you come from.
KP: One thing I was thinking about while watching was exactly that. The fact that there’s so many of these types of films and stories about boys and not so much about girls. Part of the reason, I think, is because people struggle with seeing girls swear or talk about sex or things like that. Have you gotten any negative pushback as a result of the film from people thinking girls shouldn’t behave that way?
PH: Yeah. I mean, we have a little bit. I think something that sticks with me a lot about some of those responses is that they talk about how we didn’t show the girls doing other things in the film. In making this, Izzie and I talked so much about when you look at the way men have been shown, because of the history of all of cinema, everything we watch you can imagine the rest of them. So even though you’re talking about this part of their lives, you know without even seeing it know that there’s so much more to them.
I feel like what has really stuck with me about some of the responses about this is people don’t actually have that in their minds. They can’t imagine the rest of [these girls]. And so they’re like, “Well, it seems like they’re just cursing and partying.” We’re not at all saying that’s all they are, you’re thinking that’s all they are, because you aren’t seeing the rest of them. It’s one of the reasons for the way we ended the film. This is just but a chapter. How could you possibly sum anyone up for a summer of their lives? But it’s interesting, the connotation, people’s imagination about how full of a person a girl is, is based on what we’ve seen. And if we haven’t grown up on an endless supply of complex stories about girls and women, especially from a setting like this, you can’t imagine that. It’s been weird to feel like people don’t think that we’re as much people because they don’t know what it looks like.
IB: Coming soon is the homework and after school jobs! Vérité style. Lots of Grey’s Anatomy.
KP: What were some of the things you learned about how much teenagers have changed just in the couple years since you were there?
IB: It’s crazy. Obviously Parker and I don’t have children, but I can only imagine. They really do grow up very fast. And they really gain an incredible amount of maturity. When you’re a teenager, you have a certain brand of maturity where you think you know what’s up and then when you get older you realize the real strength is in understanding what you don’t know. And I think seeing them gain a bit of a voice too and really get excited about sharing their stories or get excited about talking to other girls who message them, it’s been very cool.
PH: Also nude culture is very different.
IB: Oh yeah, for sure.
PH: Teenagers live with a very different internet than we did, which is crazy.
IB: It’s a little scary, yeah.
KP: How did they react when they got to see the finished film? What did they have to say about it?
IB: We had been showing them pieces of the film as we were editing it. As we got closer to picture lock, they all had watched their own scenes.
PH: They saw everything they were in.
IB: They saw everything they were in, yeah. And so when they fully watched the film it was cool for them to get to see how their stories interacted with the other stories and piece together this larger thing. But their true first reaction was like, “That’s it?”
PH: “You filmed all those hours all those days, and like it’s not five hours?”
IB: “So much happened!”
PH: The five hour cut will be coming shortly.
IB: The Autumn Cut, we’ll call it.
PH: But it was great. It’s been very cool seeing them embrace it, even as they’re getting further and further from the age that they were when this was filmed. It’s been very cool to see them reflect on how they’ve grown and how one of them at the time of the film didn’t have a great relationship with her mom, and now they’re very close and they’re able to like talk about that time.
KP: It’s the coolest home movie ever.
IB: We were saying it would have been nuts to have footage of myself at 15!
PH: I would have said the craziest, I don’t even know.
IB: I wish I had more of it. It’s kind of a time capsule. Diving into the many hundreds of hours of footage that didn’t get used five years from now will be very bizarre for all of us. We’ll be like, “Oh my gosh, we have so much of your life documented.” It’s cool.
KP: For each of you, as filmmakers, as women, as women filmmakers, what are some things that you learned about yourself and about your own hopes for the future while working on Cusp?
IB: I think we kind of already touched on it a little bit, but the idea of starting to understand femininity and womanhood as being a sort of elastic, and it has many definitions, and it has many experiences. There’s all sorts of things happening under the surface. There has been a move recently to promote and make female-led stories, but it feels like there’s so many more to do too. It feels endless.
PH: Yeah, I totally agree. Helping to broaden everyone’s understanding of how different so many female stories can be. Right now, in some ways, there’s still this idea as if something could be the definitive story about a girl from Texas. A definitive story about a revenge. I’m thinking about the way Promising Young Woman was reviewed. Because there are still so few, people think they speak for more, but how come you can write a revenge story about a guy doing whatever the hell he wants and it’s like, that’s just that character, you know? I hope that we’re going to be seeing more stories about complex women and and that everyone’s experience is different. There’s so much universal through the specifics, but also we’re still just figuring out what that means. To broaden people’s understanding to know that you haven’t seen every side of what a woman is yet. No one has. We’re going to spend our whole lives not fully knowing.
Cusp is available on Showtime beginning Friday, November 26.