Jess + Moss – Review

Recalling the sprawling hot summers of adolescence, Jess + Moss is a coming of age story told in an untraditional way. Clay Jeter’s feature film debut has drawn attention during its run at Sundance and has racked up a number of positive reviews. While undoubtedly an art film, Jess + Moss is surprisingly unpretentious and delivers a mesmerizing look into the loneliness and beauty of youth.

The film follows the activities of 18 year old Jess (Sarah Hagan) and 12 year old Moss (Austin Vickers) and is shot mainly on Jeter’s family’s old tobacco farm in Murray, Kentucky. There is no running narrative; we simply drop in on Jess and Moss’s last summer days together. They spend their time stargazing, riding their bikes and shooting fireworks and BB guns. We never learn too much about the history of their relationship, other than that they are second cousins. Furthermore, their individual back-stories remain mostly obscured throughout the film, with key elements revealed only in fleeting glimpses. These are two people in transition; Jess is nearly an adult and Moss is emerging from childhood. Despite their obvious differences, and at times harsh treatment of each other, they remain steadfast at each other’s side. Their bond seems strengthened by their shared experiences of loss. Moss’s parents died in a car crash when he was young and Jess’s mother has run off, leaving only cassette tapes in her wake. These are characters that are lost in memory and myth, constantly reaching for something just past their grasp. Moss gets Jess to repeat the same stories about his parents over and over, while Jess develops destructive tendencies while obsessively listening to her mother’s tapes. The theme of memory pumps through Jess + Moss’s celluloid veins, and this is exactly how the film looks and feels, like a beloved yet achingly painful memory. Many scenes in the film are as worn and grainy as the well-used pages of a paperback. In order to achieve this weathered appearance, Jeter shot on several types of film stock, some of it decades old. In addition to this, just like the stories and tapes Moss and Jess consistently listen to, songs and images within the film repeat. While the film lacks a traditional linear story, it boldly asserts its own structure, that which mimics disjointed human memory.

I found this film captivating on many levels, and was impressed by the natural feeling of the performances. Sarah Hagan is intense and beautiful as Jess, while Austin Vickers fills Moss with a childlike charm and genuine heart. Despite this being his first film, Vickers is a natural in front of the camera. The pair work well off of each other, creating scenes of innocent fun, heartbreaking cruelty and at times, magnetic sexual tension. I was especially drawn to Jess + Moss’s incredibly striking visual imagery. The rural settings of Kentucky provided Jeter’s lens with glowing sunsets, endless tobacco fields and the untamed countryside. The visual feature piece of the film where Moss and Jess spend most of their time, a miserable house that ought to be condemned, simply glows in its state of splendid and chaotic dilapidation.

Jess + Moss is a heartfelt film full of stunning imagery and endearing performances. While the lack of linear narrative may try the patience of some viewers, film lovers should find the experience to be rewarding.

Jess + Moss is playing at The Pacific Cinematheque March 2-3, 8 and 12.

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