Sundance – Jess + Moss

Jess + Moss is the first experimental film I’ve seen at Sundance this year that has really stretched the definition of filmmaking.  With this disclaimer, it’s not really necessary to say it, but I will.  Jess + Moss is not a conventional narrative.  It will probably test the patience of most of its viewers.  And there is not, by any means, any sort of closure offered to comfort those that sit through the duration of its eighty two minutes.

What director Clay Jeter was more interested in is the exploration of memories, and how we related to them, ideas and emotions that run through our heads without being coherent, but in the same rite, are still violently influential and relevant to our psyches.  What he’s created here is more of an epic poem, than a feature film.  A modern Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner which takes place on a farm in rural Kentucky.  Two characters take up ninety nine percent of the film’s screen time.  They are the titular characters Jess, and Moss.  They’re epic characters in the sense they can represent so much to so many people, without an exact definition of who the are and what they really stand for.  They’re aptly placed in dreamlike surrounding of staggeringly beautiful colors.  The two act and react to each other for what seems like a portion of the summer, judging by the size of the crops they play around.

The story, if it can really be called that, seems to be a stream of consciousness type tale of a two unlikely friends.  Jess has graduated high school but is sticking around her father’s home, hoping the mother that abandoned her, promising to pick her up sometime in the future, will return.  Moss, or Amos, is much younger, being raised by his grandparents following the death of his mother and father in what we’re told was a car crash, but we can’t be sure.  Nothing in this story is made sure.

Besides the pleasing cinematography and realistic performances by the two leads, the films biggest asset is its sound.  Not only is the audience meant to glean information from the way Jess and Moss act, but we also find out much about them by the playing of old recordings, cassette tapes that provide the strongest foundation for the development of these two.  Some of them are from Jess’s mother, a kind of good bye and promise she made when she left.  Other’s are recorded by kids themselves.  The latter are particularly poignant and bring a much needed emotionalism to what originally seems an impassive tale.  Beyond the actual words we hear, sound is played with like paint on a canvas, experimenting in electronic looping, the cutting together of different recordings, and minimal use of hauntingly beautiful piano music (some borrowed from Marie Antoinette).

Similarly important is a scene which inspects the interactions of the kids in their respective homes, where the two friends are virtually unable to relate to their guardians in any way.  Jess, because of her father’s negligence and drinking and partying.  Moss, because his grandparents seem immeasurably old and irrelevant compared to him.  The comparison to this inability to relate makes the chemistry between the two so evident, it nearly jumps off the screen.

The film begins, perhaps half way through, to hint at some much darker subjects than spending carefree days in the countryside of Kentucky.  But as Jeter is so quick to remind everyone he can, this film is about memory.  As we avoid visiting our own painful memories but fail to do so completely, so does the film.  That’s not to mean what’s inferred isn’t completely understood.  Even a casual viewer will pick up on the subtle hints Jeter and his writers (besides the director, three others are credited for the screenplay, and there’s an additional credit for the story) seem so deft in carrying out on the screen.

Filming was done on Jeter’s family tobacco farm.  Which may suggest a certain amount of autobiography.  We don’t know if it is, or if it’s not.  It doesn’t really matter.  The film has countless allegorical readings.  There’s so much in Jess + Moss, it’s a marvel.


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9 Responses to “Sundance – Jess + Moss”
  1. melanie says:

    this review really caught my interest. want to see this movie now, and bummed i will probably not get to. damn.
    melanie´s last blog post ..2011 Oscar Nominations and my picks

  2. Barbara D. Schiappa says:

    It’s nice to hear of a film so well done that it doesn’t have to be plot-driven or rely on high-action scenes to hold the viewer’s attention. Jess+Moss sounds multilayered and literary. I can’t wait to see it!

  3. Blake says:

    @ melanie – There’s hope! I believe it’s been picked up. I’m sure it’ll pop up on Netflix sometime.

    @ Barbara – Literary is actually a really great word to describe it. Thanks!

  4. Dawn Fisher says:

    It is definitely not an epic poem. Where is the invocation of the muse, where is the physical journey from one location to another, where is the ekphrasis? I watched the film and saw none of these essential elements for the criteria of epic poetry. Know the definition of an epic poem before you throw it around in your review.

  5. Blake says:

    @ Dawn – You may notice there weren’t any actual words either! Also, the Princeton dictionary defines an epic poem as “a long narrative poem telling of a hero’s deeds.” And that’s all. You better know the definition of an epic poem before you act like a such bitch.

  6. skykid says:

    Watching the the entire film – was a dreadful experience to me . While I appreciated the visual aesthetics and well used voice over – the lack of any development of the plot really got on my nerves , I was tempted to just stop the film – but kept watching hopeful that things may change. A test on my patience – indeed and failed one.

  7. Blake says:

    @ skykid – I get that, it was a fairly challenging film. And I do have a higher tolerance for that sort of stuff during the festival. But something about it spoke to me. It also helped that the director introduced the film, explaining away what would have been some of my bigger questions.

  8. King Klas says:

    Amazing movie…from silky dark to pure happiness and the tempo is like a lazy, slow summerday…this is perfection on a screen.
    But how the hell do I get the songs…seems impossible to find out…the music is lovely – anyone ?
    Mr Humble

  9. Ava Adork says:

    In the end Jess left without saying goodbye to Moss. And they never saw each other again.

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