Sundance 2021: “Cusp” and “At the Ready” Highlight the Strength and Complexity of American Teenagers

Sundance 2021: “Cusp” and “At the Ready” Highlight the Strength and Complexity of American Teenagers

This is the second in a series of reviews from the 2021 Sundance Film Festival focused on films directed by women, which will continue daily for the next five days. Get caught up on all the Sundance 2021 reviews here.


While portraying real people and events via documentary film can heighten viewers’ investment in the subjects and their experiences, documentarians—particularly those who film minors or other potentially vulnerable subjects—shoulder significant responsibility to represent their subjects faithfully. Maintaining a relationship of mutual trust and understanding becomes crucial if filmmakers want access to their subjects’ lives.

In both Cusp and At the Ready, the rapport filmmakers developed with their teenage subjects comes through starkly in the raw emotion and often difficult questions these youth confront.


Cusp

A stunningly crafted documentary, Cusp’s narrative expresses both the fear and hope of girls who are on the verge of embarking on their adult lives.

Directed by Isabel Bethencourt and Parker Hill. Currently seeking distribution, the film won the Sundance Special Jury Award for Emerging Filmmaker in the U.S. Documentary Category.

Sundance 2021: “Cusp” and “At the Ready” Highlight the Strength and Complexity of American Teenagers
Still from Cusp. (Courtesy of the Sundance Institute)

During the Q&A after the screening, Bethencourt and Hill described how they first met the subjects of their artfully rendered film, then-15-year-olds Brittany, Aaloni and Autumn, during a chance encounter at a gas station late one night in small town Texas. They were just passing through on a road trip, but Bethencourt and Hill found the girls fascinating and resolved to return later with proper equipment to make a movie about them.  

The result of this serendipitous meeting is a simultaneously haunting and affirming meditation on teenage girlhood. The camera follows these three friends, together and in turn, as they navigate a hot Texas summer, spending much of their time drinking, smoking weed and talking about their dreams, heartbreaks and everyday lives. Betraying the filmmakers’ training as photographers, the film’s cinematography beautifully echoes the stillness and ennui of the long summer hours the girls muddle through. And they are remarkably frank and open with each other and for the camera, treating viewers to an intimate insight into their lives. The observational closeness of the film may even make the viewer feel like they could be just another friend tagging along for the ride.

For the filmmakers, “telling a story with as much love and compassion as you can” became a central tenet of their project—all the more essential as the issue of consent emerged as a theme of the film. The three girls and their friends have all experienced some degree of sexual harassment, with many having been raped, molested or assaulted by boyfriends or family friends over the course of their young lives. Brittany, Autumn and Aaloni share these experiences openly, their almost-casual delivery underscoring the filmmakers’ lament (offered during the Q&A) that sexual assault is an “inextricable experience” of American teenage girlhood.

And yet, it’s the girls’ resilience and vibrancy that shimmers through the gloom of lonely fields and stressful home lives, that punctuates idle conversations and afternoons spent casually with boys and each other or at bush parties designed to staunch the boredom of endless summer nights. A stunningly crafted documentary, Cusp’s narrative expresses both the fear and hope of girls who are on the verge of embarking on their adult lives.


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At the Ready

Three students weigh their yearning for the stable, well-paying work law enforcement offers in their hometown—only ten miles from the Mexican border—against their own Latinx heritage.

Directed by Maisie Crow. This film is currently seeking distribution.

Sundance 2021: “Cusp” and “At the Ready” Highlight the Strength and Complexity of American Teenagers
Still from At the Ready. (Courtesy of the Sundance Institute)

Maisie Crow’s incisive documentary At the Ready is a study in contrasts, offering a smartly crafted narrative that treads difficult political water while telling a set of personal stories about finding your place in a world that isn’t always black and white. It’s no surprise Crow found such worthwhile fodder in her subjects: a group of Mexican American high schoolers in El Paso, Texas, who take law enforcement and criminal justice classes.

The film follows three of these teens—Cristina, Mason [he is referred to as Kassy throughout the film, but no longer goes by that name] and Cesar—all of whom belong to the Criminal Justice Club at school and are considering post-graduation careers as border control agents, customs officials or police officers. Through a sympathetic lens, Crow brings us into the lives of these students, who must weigh their yearning for the stable, well-paying work law enforcement offers in their hometown, only ten miles from the Mexican border, against their own Latinx heritage.

Viewers may experience some cognitive dissonance watching teens wearing Kevlar, brandishing fake guns, and practicing how to properly search and subdue suspects while they contemplate whether to pursue careers in a field that disproportionately targets racial and ethnic minorities.

And yet, the teens are earnest and thoughtful, engaging in heartfelt discussions with their teachers, their parents, and each other about the politics of immigration and their own connections to family on both sides of the border. A significant strength of Crow’s documentary is how it gives its subjects the space and freedom to explore their options and draw their own conclusions at a crossroads where race, class and gender intersect with immigration and the law.

As the teens prepare for a regional criminal justice competition, which takes them through mock scenarios including a drug raid and active shooter drills, they also navigate their developing sense of political agency and an awareness of their own place in the American social fabric.

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About

Aviva Dove-Viebahn is an Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies at Arizona State University and Contributing Editor, Scholar Writing Program for Ms.