Z To A: Jess + Moss (2011)

(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)

jess + moss poster

Plot Synopsis: Jess (Sarah Hagan) and Moss (Austin Vickers) are second cousins in the dark-fire tobacco fields of rural Western Kentucky. Without immediate families that they can relate to, and lacking friends their own age, they only have each other. Over the course of a summer they venture on a journey exploring deep secrets, identity, and hopes for the future in the wilds of their world.

– From DVD Production Notes

(Mild Spoilers Ahead)

Chances are you haven’t seen Jess + Moss, let alone heard about it. I discovered it by chance through Netflix, watching it at one or two in the morning. It surprised me and I felt compelled to purchase it, knowing it wouldn’t be around for long. I was right. As far as I know, it’s no longer available for streaming (it is, however, available on Hulu and elsewhere).

On many levels Moss is an experimental feature with a lot of potential to fail. However, it doesn’t, unfolding into a rural fever dream of a movie. It defies categorization, although I’d place somewhere between Terrence Malick’s Days Of Heaven (1978), The Maysles Brothers’ Grey Gardens (1975) and Harmony Korine’s earlier films- Gummo (1997) and Julien Donkey-Boy (1999).

The narrative’s main concern is memory- exploring it in all of its inconsistent, nostalgic and troubling glory. It’s both objective and subjective, with so much inferred I’d guess every viewer has different theories about the characters and their deeds.

And it’s beautiful. I simply can’t get over how gorgeous this film is, especially considering it was solely shot on director Clay Jeter’s family farm on a shoestring budget:

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Moss is a never-ending cascade of striking images. However, it’s their quality and order that makes the film hard to forget, interweaving footage shot on various expired film stocks (some of them up to thirty years old). The quality of the footage varies, sometimes reflecting which memories are “sharp” and which ones are uncomfortable or unwanted. Other times the narrative folds in on itself altogether, as if we’re getting a glimpse of a thought process skating around the truth. By the end of the film, that truth is never fully revealed. All we know is Moss is alone.

What I gathered from the narrative is that we’re (mostly) seeing things from Moss’s point of view. The timeline is fuzzy and toggles from one memory to another, honing in on Jess and Moss’s times together as well as their moments apart. It becomes apparent that their relationship is playful and close at its best, strained and troubled at its worst.

Most of this is due to Jess. It’s an unexpected turn from Sarah Hagan (who is better known for her roles in Freaks and Geeks and Buffy The Vampire Slayer), capturing a girl so immature and unsure of herself she doesn’t know how to behave. Her suffering is palpable but is often overshadowed by moments of respite or joy. I supposed this was how Moss wants to remember her.

Their summer isn’t always smooth sailing. Jess often vents her frustrations and sexual insecurities on Moss, which is a heavy load to bear. In spite of this the film never questions her actions, perhaps because Moss can’t bear to do the same. (Nevertheless, I read that viewers walked out of film screenings during certain scenes).

Much like anyone’s memory, this film proves to be incomplete and questionable. Jeter noted in his commentary that he intended to make viewers question their own memories and experiences. There is darkness in our young lives, sometimes in the most unexpected places, but there is also beauty and comfort. It’s up to the individual when it comes to which memories will stay while others slip away.

If anything Jess + Moss captures that idea in an unconventional way. Moss’s memory rewinds and fast-forwards, utilizes slides and layers of sound as it comes to a close. His summer with Jess is something he “knows by heart,” and therefore it’s timeless and ineffably his. The last shot of the film is as sad as it is sweet and celebratory.

If you haven’t seen it and aren’t afraid of experimental narratives, I can’t recommend this film enough. If I can’t convince you, perhaps a trailer will:

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