‘There is no normal’: what it’s like to be a teenager today | Documentary films

In summer season 2018, photographers Parker Hill and Isabel Bethencourt have been on the tail-end of a street journey from Montana to Austin after they have been diverted to a gasoline station in a small Texas navy city. It was two within the morning, however the truck that pulled up subsequent to them was thrumming with vitality — music blasting, a group of barefoot teenage ladies spilling out of the cab, charisma free-flowing and uncut.

The teams hit it off, and shortly Hill and Bethencourt have been careening down a grime street towards a highschool get together of about 15. Cameras out, they requested the teenagers about their lives: what’s it like to be you? What are you coping with? What would you like to discuss?

“They had so much to say”, Hill instructed the Guardian. “It really felt like they had been jones-ing to talk about what it was like to be them and no one had ever asked.”

The boys talked about their jobs, the upcoming horizon of maturity and the eclipsing window of carefree partying. But the women have been extra forthright and circumspect concerning the negotiations they’d already made, the shit they’d already dealt with by 16. “They all felt like they had to grow up really early, and that they were more mature than they wanted to be at their age,” mentioned Bethencourt. Few folks had requested, and fewer had listened.

The photographers returned to New York, with the sensation that there was extra to hear and say. So they direct messaged a few of the ladies on Instagram and requested in the event that they’d be fascinated with welcoming a digital camera into their lives for a bit. The reply was typical teenage informal: textual content us while you’re right here.


The ensuing debut movie, Cusp, captures the lives of three ladies from that Texas night time – finest pals Brittney, Autumn and Aaloni, all 15 or 16 years previous — throughout a pivotal mid-high college summer season of their lives. Filmed largely between March and August 2019, the 83-minute documentary, which premiered at Sundance this 12 months and can air on Showtime after a theatrical launch this month, lingers on the unvarnished treasures of a golden adolescent summer season: purple twilight skies, fries within the McDonald’s car parking zone, a tallboy of low cost beer at a area get together, pals sardined in again seats and tousled in mattress. It additionally observes the informal festering of open emotional wounds: remnants of sexual trauma, powerlessness so normalized it fades in to the background, shapeless futures and adults who allow them to down time and again.

Brittney, disaffected and impulsive, seems twelve or twenty relying on the load of her eye make-up and avoids being alone by means of partying, alcohol and an older boyfriend who calls for near-constant contact. Autumn, essentially the most sardonic and clever of the three, finds her self-confidence cratered by a sudden breakup with the one boy she trusted. Aaloni, the youngest of the trio, is half older sister and half mom to her tight-knit household, rocked by the return of her father, a navy man who struggles with PTSD; he by no means seems on digital camera, however his rage, usually directed on the daughters he can’t management, terrifies from outdoors the body.

If there’s a plot to the movie past the passage of time strung between events and debriefs and sofa hangs and one communal nipple piercing, it could be the film-makers’ dawning realization, and the women’ burgeoning articulation, of simply how a lot trauma lays about, and the poisonous masculinity they’ve weathered. Hill and Bethencourt’s cameras catch an underlying energy imbalance that pokes by means of all the home events and automotive hangs. The ladies have been quieter across the boys, and youthful. Many of the boys personal and play with weapons. The boys have the automobiles, the homes to get together in, the alcohol, the medication. They even have the leverage of bodily power, and their very own phrases of consent. “She was intoxicated and he was intoxicated, too. It’s not rape if they’re both intoxicated,” one boy says at a get together when the women deliver up an incident with one other pal.


Autumn places it bluntly: ladies are scared to say no as a result of “guys are powerful”, they usually don’t pay attention anyway. It’s 2019, however the #MeToo and Time’s Up actions are distant, imprecise concepts to Autumn, Aaloni and Brittney, who usually maintain a telephone in a single hand and a Juul within the different, however whose social media is hyper-local (Facebook for storage gross sales, Snapchat for events and hangouts). The social actions whose discourse, if not intent, have at the very least develop into the norm in mass media are absent right here.

A vortex of shame, guilt, fury and confusion churns on-screen.
A vortex of disgrace, guilt, fury and confusion churns on-screen. Photograph: Courtesy of SHOWTIME

Over the course of filming, every of the women opened up about non-consensual sexual experiences, particulars of that are recounted within the second half of the movie — ignored nos, gaslit “why didn’t you do anything to stop it?” defenses, wars of consent attrition they by no means felt they may win. Two of the women have been abused as kids by pals of their dad and mom, trauma they clarify with steely, chagrined frankness.

A vortex of disgrace, guilt, fury and confusion churns on-screen, as the women begin to course of with their phrases. “A lot of them explained it with an asterisk — like ‘oh, that’s my fault,’ or ‘I should have said no,’” mentioned Hill. “They kind of explained it away.”

Brittney recollects dropping her virginity, which she says she by no means meant to do: “I just couldn’t say no, I don’t really even know why, I was just so scared to say no.”


Brittney, particularly, evinces what Bethencourt and Hill name “survival tactics” for his or her particular minefield of poisonous masculinity and violence. It’s improper that her boyfriend expects her to be with him each night time, she tells Aaloni and Autumn, however complying is preferable than him being mad at her. I recalled how once I was in highschool within the early 2010s, it was widespread information, a joke, to keep away from a sure common man at a get together after 10pm, or how many people adopted by means of with dangerous intercourse as a result of shutting down felt much less dangerous than talking up. Fucked up looking back, sensible within the second; it simply made life simpler to take it on your self, as all three ladies do all through the movie.

Cusp(L-R): Autumn and G in CUSP. Photo credit: Parker Hill & Isabel Bethencourt/Courtesy of SHOWTIME.
Hill and Bethencourt’s cameras catch an underlying energy imbalance that pokes by means of all the home events and automotive hangs. Photograph: Parker Hill & Isabel Bethencourt/Courtesy of SHOWTIME

“So many of them say, ‘just pick and choose your battles,’” mentioned Hill. “And that like, they’d rather be ok with that, and swallow that kind of thing, or let someone talk to them a certain way because it’s better than that guy being angry, or it’s better than not knowing how you’re getting home tonight.” The guys are older, greater, usually armed; the women have a good time, get plastered, however the threats of bodily violence are looming traps to dance round and blitz by means of.

The duality of the teenage woman expertise – carefree and fragile, supreme confidence and consuming self-doubt, the enjoyment and the specter of folks – can be “easy to overlook”, mentioned Bethencourt. “We really wanted people to reflect on their own teenage-hood experience and to see what is really going on today.” The telephones, music and video video games have modified, at the very least within the ten years since I graduated; the default energy dynamics haven’t.

Cusp ends as summers do: with the return to college, which Brittney and Autumn have since graduated (Aaloni is a senior). It’s a change of surroundings, not stability. “We’re all confused, because there is no normal – there’s no normal in teenage years,” Autumn says at one level within the movie. She might not be ready to rely on many round her to pay attention, however she demonstrates religion in placing phrases to it, validating the experience.


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