Cusp at A.I.R Gallery, Written and directed by Ruth Sergel
Authentic and deeply affecting, this poignant tale of passage illumines the throes of burgeoning adolescence. It is timely for its challenge to the prevailing norm of affluent, Benetton-homogenized youth—but also for its feminine perspective on the hazardous cross from youth to maturity. Through its vibrant mosaic of interlocking vignettes, Cusp lays bare the growing pains of 12 year-old Alice, whose world reels when puberty assaults both individual character and interpersonal relationships.
From the outset, the city’s teeming milieu filters events through a fine interweaving of urban tensions and delights. Cusp begins as an ode to childhood in New York, with girlish frolics in verdant parks and mirth shared in neighborhood sweetshops. These exuberant adventures, however, are soon counterbalanced by the anxieties of urban family life and the rawness of emotion that spills over into the city streets. Moving deftly from one scene to the next, Sergel spreads before us a world whose frenetic energy is soothed by the camaraderie of community, often the more tender for its shared tribulations. Here teachers extend themselves to mold their students’ values, and shopkeepers indulge young patrons with a familial fondness. Even the environment offers welcome gratification, as eclectic apartments provide immersion in the cobalt blue of their walls, and pulsating merengues inject the atmosphere with buoyant and contagious rhythms. One of the most engaging moments occurs when Alice goes upstairs to deliver a package of coffee to neighbor Lila and her boyfriend Sam. Taking the bundle from Alice’s outstretched hand, Sam extends this incidental contact by whirling her across the room in spontaneous dance steps; Lila is their approving audience, smiling broadly at this innocent taste of future pleasures.
Soon, however, Alice’s confidence and contentment show signs of unraveling, as her constant companion, Eliza, is courted by Becca, a manipulative trendsetter and classmate. As Eliza begins to behave more and more like Becca and her crowd, Alice struggles with slights that leave her increasingly isolated and undermine her composure in other situations as well. Confused and beleaguered, Alice can no longer accommodate the demands of her edgy and overworked mother. The fierce battles that ensue embody that peculiarly female kind of pain that exists between mothers and daughters. Ultimately drawing on lessons learned from others in her life, Alice steadily moves toward a larger understanding of her world. It is her growing courage under fire—and her faithfulness to her own inner voice—that give the film its social and psychological resonance.
This work is a piercing portrayal of the treacherous terrain of adolescence. In that volatile environment, childhood preoccupations grow tiresome while new desires take hold like a fever. Everyone and everything seems in flux, thrown off balance by the scramble for young-adult personae. The desperation of that struggle gives rise to rigid group mores that confer instant “sophistication,” while narrow definitions of masculine/feminine freeze developing personalities. Within this angst-ridden framework, so prone to machismo and coquetry, girls may come to betray their friends and their own identities while striving to be viewed as womanly. Accordingly, Eliza surrenders her hold on individualism as well as openness, and resents Alice’s refusal to follow suit. It is this duel between personal integrity and social conformism that is so poignant in the clash between Alice and Eliza. And the intensity of the performances by these two young actresses gives the film an edgy combustibility that ultimately explodes. When the camera zeroes in on Alice’s pale face as Eliza pronounces the end of their friendship, the audience could be knocked over with a feather. Through its kaleidoscope of events and impressions, Cusp speaks volumes about a momentous, even crucial, transition in life, and packs a remarkable depth of passage within its 25-minute span. The pervasive atmosphere of provocative new experiences, mingled with the perils of shifting alliances and random cruelties, form a rich fabric of emotional discovery. Ultimately, Alice’s social trials become a crucible from which she emerges with concentrated strength and crystalline understanding. She encapsulates the entire experience within a few, succinct words as she confronts Becca and Eliza: “You can pretend like it’s not important, but it is important. I know how I am.” Defying the pressure to reinvent herself according to the demands of others, she reaps a hard-won personal victory; it is a triumph that may confer outsider status at school, but it is greeted with respect and celebration at home. In the film’s final moments, she is literally enfolded by the circle of authentic individuals in her life, bathed in the genuine glow that comes with meeting life on one’s own terms.