Best Under-the-radar Movies #7: Jess + Moss

Jess + Moss
USA, 2011
Directed by Clay Jeter
Written by Clay Jeter, Debra Jeter, Nikki Jeter Wilbanks, Will Basanta, and Isaac Hagy

Available to stream on Hulu (free with ads) and HuluPlus

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Jess + Moss is a film about two broken individuals who need each other to make it through life. Sarah Hagan (Millie from Freaks and Geeks) plays Jess, and Austin Vickers (nobody from nothing) plays Moss. They are virtually the only characters in the film, and by the end of the too-short 85 minute running time, we grow to be incredibly fond of them both.

The story takes place during a hot, sticky summer in and around the tobacco fields of Kentucky. Jess is about 18, and Moss probably 13 or 14. Despite the age and sex difference, they make perfect best friends. Most of their time is spent doing what real kids do–lounging on the tops of silos, shooting BB guns at windows, and setting off firecrackers. All the while they talk about things that real kids talk about (Moss: “Hey Jess, what’s a dildo?”).

FullSizeRenderThere is no noticeable plot, but rather a lot of meandering and youthful meditation. The main concern of the story is with memory. Both characters have lost something in their pasts. Jess tries to hold onto the only good thing she knew–her mother–by revisiting an old cassette recording over and over again. Moss’s past is less clear. He takes every chance he can get to listen to a tape called Megamemory, in hopes that he can boost his brain power and recall something joyful from his past.

Jess + Moss is the feature debut of writer-director Clay Jeter, and it is a stunning opener for a career that I will be following closely. I think he must have boosted his own brainpower with a tape like Megamemory because he seems to remember childhood summers like they were yesterday. His visualization and tone perfectly recall the emotions and the freedom of eventless summer days. It made me feel like I was a teenager again, climbing trees, throwing rocks, and pushing my cousin around the neighborhood in a shopping cart.

Something ought to be said for how lovely this film is to look at. Jeter chose to shoot it on Super 16 which gives it a grain that fits the story just right. He often fills his frame with junk in the midst of growth, death in the midst of new life. This contrast provides a beautiful backdrop for the thematic elements of the film. It reinforces the idea that joy exists alongside the pain from the characters’ riddled and painful pasts. It is a subtle nudge at the viewer that love and life conquer heartbreak and death.

Moss has a fascination with this life springing up from the ashes. He is fixated in particular by old bottles and the strange things that grow inside them. He collects them, he is drawn to them, they excite his curiosity. For me the film does the same. It is bursting with nostalgia, with dreamlike imagery, and with the occasional question that makes your imagination run wild.

Jess + Moss won a handful of awards at second-rate film festivals around the world. But it never got the attention it deserves. Watching it reminded me an awful lot of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. It has the same beauty, the same scope, and the same honesty of a story told through the eyes of youth. But somehow it passed by quietly. Thank goodness for MUBI, or I never would have found it.

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