‘Jess + Moss’ tracks the awkwardness and freedom of growing up

Jess + Moss,¬†Clay Jeter’s unusually heartfelt film about two kids growing up in western Kentucky, is a film experience unlike any other. Almost all the cinematic rules are broken, and the results are somehow transcendent. Featuring two actors, very little dialogue and grainy footage, it would appear that Jeter’s film was more like home-video footage than a 2012 arthouse indie. This rawness and sparseness works wonders, creating a sense of reality and endearment.

Jess (Sarah Hagan) has already graduated high school, but she spends the summer like a child. Her mother has moved out, leaving behind promises that one day she’ll return. Her father is distant and perhaps violent. Her only friend is Moss (Austin Vickers), her younger first cousin who wiles away the summer days in the fields and abandoned houses of Kentucky. Together, these title characters find a world of their own, one where dreams collide with nightmares, where parents are only present in spirit, where anything seems possible. They are free and depressed, working through the two extremes in a split second.

The two kids shoot off fireworks, smoke cigarettes, play games, run around outside, talk about adult situations. They learn from each other and become inseparable. Jess and Moss never discuss what makes their connection so special, but it’s obvious that they’re brought together over shared lonesomeness and grief. Jess has packed a suitcase, waiting eternally for her mother to return. She plays a tape of her mother’s voice over and over again, constantly listening to the empty promises and hoping they will soon prove true. Moss has not had it any easier. Both of his parents died in a car accident, and other than Jess, there’s no older figure in his life. He has no direction, no person to tell him what life is all about.

These two cousins find solace in their shared company. And we, the privileged audience members, get to watch their evolution like flies on the wall. Jeter makes everything seem so organic that Jess + Moss is difficult to describe. Rather than hearing the characters talk all the time, the director has a voiceover from the kids play over most of the action. Scenes come and go like interconnected portraits. The plot is largely missing; these characters simply live their life, going from here to there and back again

These experimental films can often cause frustration. Some audience members might want to reach through the screen and tell Jess and Moss to start talking like usual film characters, to start doing something interesting, to have their actions build around a beginning, middle and end. Jeter and his cast of two has something different in mind. They approach the coming-of-age tale with a different lens, one that allows deep introspection. Much more is learned with this style of filmmaking, and Jess and Moss are better served by the finely focused spotlight. With Jeter’s original camerawork, we pick up on details that would otherwise go missing. Youth has never been so sad, has never been so free.

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

  • Jess + Moss

  • 2012

  • Written and directed by Clay Jeter

  • Starring Sarah Hagan and Austin Vickers

  • Running time: 83 minutes

  • Rating: ★★★★

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications. E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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