Jess + Moss
Directed by Clay Jeter
Family-financed films like Jess + Moss, Clay Jeter's mercurial feature debut, rarely premiere in Sundance and Berlin without merit. Following a strong festival run, the film is making its way to a spattering of commercial screens willing to take a chance on a film with a limited potential to find an audience. Not that the film owes its limited appeal to a lack of quality—rather, it's the Jeter's commitment to a carefully crafted visual style that sets Jess + Moss" apart.
Jeter keeps the camera close to his subjects, Jess (Sarah Hagan), a lanky and awkward high school student, and her cousin, the much younger and emotionally wayward Moss (Austin Vickers). They are inseparable during a summer that extends its long, hot days into eternity. Their lives seem to revolve around each other, both of them having lost parental figures earlier in their childhood, as they walk around like orphans in an expansive rural setting bathed by sunshine. The narrative begins and ends there, as is more preoccupied with framing his characters in this setting than portraying any sort of story. It is perhaps the film's strongest point: Jeter avoids the potential pitfalls of stale dialogue, or of having to rely on editing to craft a performance from two young actors who seem better at ease acting like themselves than delivering lines.
The director employs a careful attention to visual detail throughout the film, using extreme close-ups and wider shots of dilapidated interiors that, at their worst, reek of an overtly conscious use of mise-en-scene. The shots are too clear and the film's pacing too consistent to label the film abstract. Instead, it is more reminiscent of Terrence Malick in the 70s. Passages in the film look like they've been taken out of the rural expanse from Badlands, and Jeter's de-saturated exploration of interior space reminds one of similarly abandoned homes in Andre' Tarkovsky's Stalker. These are lofty comparisons for a filmmaker with only a handful of short films to his name, but nevertheless appropriate in a film that shows brief flashes of great potential.
There is little to walk away with when the film's extra-lean 80-minute running time comes to a close. The scope of the film is too constrained by the filmmakers' adherence to a "shoot first, write later" philosophy; Jess + Moss looks like a great film but never feels like one. But at best, it plays like an overture to what promises to be an exciting new talent.
Opens February 17 at the reRun Gastropub Theater