SUNDANCE REVIEW: Jess + Moss

A rare experimental film that doesn't blow up in the lab.

PARK CITY -- Experimental films at Sundance are not unlike the flu bugs that run rampant through the festival’s many crowded venues: They’re inevitable but to be avoided if possible. First-time writer-director Clay Jeter’s Jess + Moss proves an exception.

 

Experimental films at Sundance are not unlike the flu bugs that run rampant through the festival’s many crowded venues: They’re inevitable but to be avoided if possible. First-time writer-director Clay Jeter’s Jess + Moss proves an exception. Not that its slow rhythms and intricate sight and sound design won’t tax the patience of those who trek here for celebrity sightings and the next hot film.

Jeter has thought deeply about how best to convey the themes he wishes to express here — themes about memory, longing and the power of the quotidian on a hot summer’s day — and how to express these things without benefit of a traditional narrative. Jess + Moss represents a bracing jolt from the usual film experience while at the same time lacking the pretension that accompanies so many experimental films.

There is no real story as such here. Two young people have only each other for companionship during a summer on a western Kentucky tobacco farm. Second cousins Jess (Sarah Hagan) and Moss (Austin Vickers) are 18 and 12 respectively. The age gap is not insignificant. Jess would probably like to experiment with boy-girl things that Moss’ immaturity prevents. Moss wants the older girl to entertain him a bit: Like telling him the story over and over again about his parents, who were killed long ago.

The film lets you gather information about these two not only from their conversations but from recorded memories. Old video and tape recordings are played. The youngsters make their own recordings as well. A crumbling farmhouse on the property, still filled with the degraded furniture and effects of lives long gone, fill in more details.

It’s also amazing how poignant Connie Francis’ old recording of Tammy, played over a couple of montages, becomes under these circumstances.

Two scenes with the boy’s and girl’s families show they are families in name only: The youngsters are completely alienated from these adults.

Jeter, who wrote the script with Debra Jeter, Will Basanta and Issac Hagy — more a succession of visual and aural strategies than a traditional screenplay — is deliberately unhelpful in providing a full background to his characters. A viewer senses rather than understands the back stories.

The two actors hold the screen quite naturally for the entire running time. Hagan is a pro with roles on the series Freaks and Geeks and Buffy the Vampire Slayer while Vickers is not. It makes no difference as the two behave as if they grew up together. They trade insults and secrets with equal ease. They are so used to each other that they shrug off small cruelties since they need one another.

Moss probably wonders why Jess hits herself every now and then. Jess wonders if she should change or edit the story of his parents, if only to alter their routine.

Jeter shot on over 30 different kinds of film stock, some many years old while others are brand new, Thus sharp, color saturated images collide with grainy ones. Some memories are fuzzy or faded while others are not, the film implies through this arresting style.

The filmmaker made the film on his family’s tobacco farm so perhaps his own memories may filter through those of his fictional characters. Or maybe they’re not fictional at all. Jess + Moss is, to put it mildly, open to interpretation.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival, New FrontiersProduction companies: Blood River Pictures in association with Love Streams agnes b. Productions

 

Cast: Sarah Hagan, Austin Vickers
Director: Clay Jeter
Screenwriters: Clay Jeter, Debra Jeter, Will Basanta, Issac Hagy
Story by: Clay Jeter, Debra Jeter, Nikki Jeter Wilbanks
Producers: Clay Jeter, Brian Harstine, Will Basanta, Issac Hagy
Executive producers: Debra Jeter, Norman Jeter, Cliff Coleman, Bill Fletcher, John Rowley, Harley Tat, Kevin Iwashina, David Gelb, Jason Michael Berman
Director of photography: Will Basanta, Clay Jeter
Production designer: Gregory Grover
Music: Clay Jeter, Issac Hagy
Costume designer: Clay Jeter, Sarah Hagan
Editor: Issac Hagy
Sales: Preferred Content
No rating, 83 minutes

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