'Moss': Film Review | LAFF 2017

Moss Still 1 - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Secret Gallery
A poetic drama with a potent sense of place.

Set on a North Carolina island, Daniel Peddle's coming-of-age drama features a cast of locals, most of them acting in a film for the first time.

A mini-odyssey set on the title character’s 18th birthday, Moss is a quiet, slender drama that resounds with hefty questions. Writer-director Daniel Peddle has made three documentaries and one previous narrative feature (Sunset Edge), each concerned with marginal, unsung or isolated lives, and here he delves into a fascinating rural world, captivatingly undeveloped. With its sensory immersion in nature and its yearning characters, the gorgeously shot film is a memorable study of solitude and connection.

As Moss, model-turned-actor Mitchell Slaggert embodies the character's bottled-up frustration as well as his readiness for new experience. On Pleasure Island, the coastal corner of North Carolina where Moss has spent his whole life, opportunities for new experiences are limited, to say the least, but as his day unfolds he’s initiated into adulthood in a number of ways.

The day begins inauspiciously. With loss of childhood front and center in Moss' thoughts, he wakes feeling the full weight of guilt over his mother's death in childbirth. In turn he stirs up the low-grade fever of friction between him and his father, Ray (Billy Ray Suggs), a driftwood artist whose work impresses everyone but Moss. (The elegant and whimsical creations are the work of Shaw Lakey.)

Tasked with delivering pills to his grandmother (Sue Philemon) on the other side of the island, a reluctant Moss sets out by rowboat on a journey that will be anything but direct. In Juri Beythien's expressive cinematography of the Cape Fear River setting, you can feel the sun as well as the live oaks' cool shadows.

Moss' first stop is at the tethered raft of his friend Blaze (Dorian Cobb, intriguingly good). An off-the-grid two-story house of sorts, Blaze's place shares the hand-hewn feel of Ray's driftwood carvings — call it outsider art as a way of life. Over coffee, snacks (Coconut Wave soda on cereal) and homegrown weed, the two young men watch nature videos on a tiny TV while the raft bobs on the gleaming water.

Not long after bemoaning his virginal state to Blaze, Moss meets an "older woman," 30-year-old Mary, and soon forgets about Gramma's pills. Well played by Christine Marzano, the most experienced actor in the cast, the sad-eyed but self-confident Mary is camping alone on the beach, and has no trepidation when the handsome teen approaches. Their encounter, compressed in terms of time and intimacy, is heightened by Moss' first experience with psilocybin, with Peddle and Beythien expertly avoiding "trippy" camera clichés in favor of a potent sense of wonder.

Ian Hatton's plaintive score complements the limpid beauty and melancholy of a movie that climaxes, in its understated way, with a number of departures of various sorts. Throughout the story, life and death, past and present comment on one another. Both Moss and Blaze, whose mother is in prison, are caught between their family stories and the ones they dream of. Blaze's return by bicycle to his mother's house is one of the visual highlights of the film, and Peddle poignantly contrasts Moss' impromptu adventures with the simple, heartfelt gifts that await him from his father and grandmother.

If the central character's voiceover commentary sometimes feels unnecessary, and the backstory of his mother's death somewhat overstated, Moss offers more than its share of wonderfully observed interactions (including those with a shopkeeper played by Erby Dalmus Burton III) as well as a few touches of mystery. Why a great horned owl named Archie is living in a cage in Moss' room is never revealed, but the moment when he's released has the oomph of a well-turned line of poetry. The eloquently filmed image perfectly encapsulates the sense of motion beneath the still surface of the drama's setting — a place that's not only geographically remote but far from what one character dismisses as "regular life."

Production company: The Secret Gallery
Cast: Mitchell Slaggert, Christine Marzano, Billy Ray Suggs, Dorian Cobb, Erby Dalmus Burton III
Director-screenwriter: Daniel Peddle
Producers: John Solomon, Daniel Peddle, Jacob Ingle
Executive producer: Gail Lyon
Director of photography: Juri Beythien
Production designer: Amanda Ingle
Costume designer: Drew Dasent
Music: Ian Halton
Editor: Zimo Huang
Underwater cinematographer: Hadar Pitchon
Casting: Conrad Woolfe
Sales: Solo Pictures

Venue: Lps Angeles Film Festival (U.S. Fiction Competition)

81 minutes