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

ion summer 2018, photographers Parker Hill and Isabel Bethencourt were at the tail-end of a road trip from Montana to Austin when they were diverted to a gas station in a small Texas military town. It was two in the morning, but the truck that pulled up next to them was thrumming with energy — music blasting, a group of barefoot teenage girls spilling out of the cab, charisma free-flowing and uncut.

The groups hit it off, and soon Hill and Bethencourt were careening down a dirt road toward a high school party of about 15. Cameras out, they asked the teens about their lives: what’s it like to be you? What are you dealing with? What do you want to talk about?

“They had so much to say”, Hill told 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 impending horizon of adulthood and the eclipsing window of carefree partying. But the girls were more forthright and circumspect about the negotiations they’d already made, the shit they’d already handled 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,” said Bethencourt. Few people had asked, and fewer had listened.

The photographers returned to New York, with the feeling that there was more to hear and say. So they direct messaged some of the girls on Instagram and asked if they’d be interested in welcoming a camera into their lives for a bit. The answer was typical teenage casual: text us when you’re here.

The resulting debut film, Cusp, captures the lives of three girls from that Texas night – best friends Brittney, Autumn and Aaloni, all 15 o 16 years old — during a pivotal mid-high school summer of their lives. Filmed mostly between March and August 2019, the 83-minute documentary, which premiered at Sundance this year and will air on Showtime after a theatrical release this month, lingers on the unvarnished treasures of a golden adolescent summer: purple twilight skies, fries in the McDonald’s parking lot, a tallboy of cheap beer at a field party, friends sardined in back seats and tangled up in bed. It also observes the casual festering of open emotional wounds: remnants of sexual trauma, powerlessness so normalized it fades in to the background, shapeless futures and adults who let them down again and again.

Brittney, disaffected and impulsive, looks twelve or twenty depending on the weight of her eye makeup and avoids being alone through partying, alcohol and an older boyfriend who demands near-constant contact. Autumn, the most sardonic and wise of the three, finds her self-confidence cratered by a sudden breakup with the only boy she trusted. Aaloni, the youngest of the trio, is part older sister and part mother to her tight-knit family, rocked by the return of her father, a military man who struggles with PTSD; he never appears on camera, but his rage, often directed at the daughters he can’t control, terrifies from outside the frame.

If there’s a plot to the film beyond the passage of time strung between parties and debriefs and couch hangs and one communal nipple piercing, it would be the film-makers’ dawning realization, and the girls’ burgeoning articulation, of just how much trauma lays about, and the toxic masculinity they’ve weathered. Hill and Bethencourt’s cameras catch an underlying power imbalance that pokes through all the house parties and car hangs. The girls were quieter around the boys, and younger. Many of the boys own and play with guns. The boys have the cars, the houses to party in, the alcohol, the drugs. They also have the leverage of physical strength, and their own terms of consent. “She was intoxicated and he was intoxicated, pure. It’s not rape if they’re both intoxicated,” one boy says at a party when the girls bring up an incident with another friend.

Autumn puts it bluntly: girls are scared to say no because “guys are powerful”, and they don’t listen anyway. It’s 2019, but the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements are distant, vague ideas to Autumn, Aaloni and Brittney, who often hold a phone in one hand and a Juul in the other, but whose social media is hyper-local (Facebook for garage sales, Snapchat for parties and hangouts). The social movements whose discourse, if not intent, have at least become the norm in mass media are absent here.

Over the course of filming, each of the girls opened up about non-consensual sexual experiences, details of which are recounted in the second half of the film — ignored nos, gaslit “why didn’t you do anything to stop it?” defenses, wars of consent attrition they never felt they could win. Two of the girls were abused as children by friends of their parents, trauma they explain with steely, chagrined frankness.

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

Brittney recalls losing her virginity, which she says she never intended to do: “I just couldn’t say no, I don’t really even know why, I was just so scared to say no.”

Brittney, in particolare, evinces what Bethencourt and Hill call “survival tactics” for their specific minefield of toxic masculinity and violence. It’s wrong that her boyfriend expects her to be with him every night, she tells Aaloni and Autumn, but complying is preferable than him being mad at her. I recalled how when I was in high school in the early 2010s, it was common knowledge, a joke, to avoid a certain popular guy at a party after 10pm, or how many of us followed through with bad sex because shutting down felt less risky than speaking up. Fucked up in retrospect, practical in the moment; it just made life easier to take it on yourself, as all three girls do throughout the film.

“So many of them say, ‘just pick and choose your battles,’” said 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, bigger, often armed; the girls have a good time, get plastered, but the threats of physical violence are looming traps to dance around and blitz through.

The duality of the teenage girl experience – carefree and fragile, supreme confidence and consuming self-doubt, the joy and the threat of people you know – can be “easy to overlook”, said Bethencourt. “We really wanted people to reflect on their own teenage-hood experience and to see what is really going on today.” The phones, music and video games have changed, at least in the ten years since I graduated; the default power dynamics have not.

Cusp ends as summers do: with the return to school, which Brittney and Autumn have since graduated (Aaloni is a senior). It’s a change of scenery, not stability. “We’re all confused, because there is no normal – there’s no normal in teenage years,” Autumn says at one point in the film. She may not be able to count on many around her to listen, but she demonstrates faith in putting words to it, validating the ride.

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