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Kirsten Johnson’s documentary memoir “Cameraperson” depicts the experience of being behind the camera, removed from interfering with any action unfolding in front of the lens, but at odds with the human desire to reach out and protect the subjects from imminent danger. That feeling of frustrated protectiveness pervades Parker Hill and Isabel Bethencourt’s observational documentary “Cusp,” which carefully inspects the lives of three teenage girls growing up in rural Texas: Brittany, Aaloni and Autumn.
“Cusp” is filled with imagery characteristic to the teenage girl existence: flickering bonfire light, curtains of long hair and of tangled limbs. It’s at times an outrageously gorgeous film, with Technicolor sunsets that seem to be a dime a dozen in these parts. But this isn’t a stereotypical portrait of transitional girlhood.
The girls are wilder and wiser than their years, at least in comparison to what audiences usually see depicted on-screen. They look incredibly young (and they are, only 15 and 16), still childlike, but drag on cigarettes like old pros. They’re candid about their partying and drug and alcohol use. Their conversations about sex are steeped in the language of consent, though they often desperately recount the ways in which consent is not an option, which seems to be just a sad and accepted truth.
Hall and Bethencourt position the camera, and thereby the audience, as another friend at the slumber party, sitting, listening and observing without judgment, which allows their darkest secrets to emerge: tragic tales of physical and sexual abuse, broken parental relationships and controlling older boyfriends. These truths lie in the background of the otherwise juvenile high jinks of drinking, getting high and hanging out, informing every swig of beer, every misguided at-home body piercing.
But like any good sunset, the beauty to be found in “Cusp” is in between the darkness and the light, in the almost imperceptible shades of gray. Most important, it’s found in the bonds the girls have with each other. Brittany says, “Please catch me,” and immediately, there are friendly hands to soften her landing.
Running time: 1 hour 24 minutes
Playing: Starts Nov. 12, Laemmle Noho 7, North Hollywood; available Nov. 26 on Showtime