Sundance 2011 Review: JESS + MOSS

Kate Erbland

by: Kate Erbland
January 30th, 2011

Rating: 2.5/5

Writers: Will Basanta, Isaac Hagy (screenplay), Clay Jeter, Debra Jeter (screenplay and story), Nikki Jeter Wilbanks (story)
Director: Clay Jeter
Cast: Sarah Hagan, Austin Vickers

"Cousins" in a loose sense of the word (their parents were best friends), both Jess (Sarah Hagen) and Moss (Austin Vickers) come from broken homes and cling to each other for familial support. Jess' father is unconcerned with her life, beyond telling her to get a job to pay for her own cigarettes, and her mother is long gone. Moss' parents died young in a car accident, leaving him to his grandparents who are, like Jess' dad, generally disinterested in Moss' development. The two kids run wild for one last season, as JESS + MOSS uses a unique structure to tell us the very specific story of a very specific kind of childhood summer.

Both Jess and Moss have an obsession with audio tapes, mainly in the sense that they allow them to record, to rewind, and to remember. Moss listens to a series of instructional tapes that promise to help him develop his memory. Moss wants to remember everything, as far back as he can, in order to unsurface some buried memories of his deceased parents. Jess listens to her own series of instructional tapes - recorded by her absent mother. Both sets of tapes promise to bring clarity to the past that has shaped their present. JESS + MOSS is very much a project about artifacts, holding the tangible in place of that which is now gone. It's no mistake that Jess and Moss' preferred playground is Jess' parents' old house, decrepit and packed with all sorts of vestiges of a life not only gone, but slipping from memory.

Jess' babyish voice and interest in running as wild as a child hides her age for a while, until we learn that she's actually graduated from high school. She's not just a full head taller than Moss, she's almost a full six years older. While much of the film takes place outside, and it's positively filled with images of greenery and growth, Jess has turned entirely stagnant, regressing into a freedom that should not be afforded to someone who needs to start a mature life. Jess and Moss are broken by the loss of love in their lives, and they are clinging to memory and each other to save them. Huge credit must be given to Clay Jeter and his cast for treading lightly when the relationship between Jess and Moss grows into something smudgy and nebulous - crossing lines that are delicate and hard to fully comprehend.

While JESS + MOSS winds on and becomes increasingly more hard to follow and grasp, we can't help but wait for some massive act to change everything. Clay Jeter's story doesn't go big, however, and we are left hungry for more - more answers, more story, more meat. JESS + MOSS is the cinematic equivalent of poetry, wildly open for interpretation, yet it gives us none of the satisfaction of a novel-type film.

JESS + MOSS is a gentle meditation on memory - its persistence and its limits and how it effects and colors the present. It relies on a non-linear and non-narrative structure to infuse a feeling into its audience, not so much focused on clear story or judgement. The film will only work for those open to an experience that leaves them grasping for the same answers that continue to evade Jess and Moss.

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