Jess + Moss
Clay Jeter's low budget directorial debut feels like a chronicle of the summer before the story happened
Clay Jeter’s beautifully saturated, fractured directorial debut Jess + Moss was filmed on the sun-baked tobacco farm where Jeter grew up, and follows 18 year old Jess and her cousin, 12 year old Moss through long, aimless days.
Orphaned Moss (Austin Vickers) and maternally abandoned Jess (Freaks and Geeks' Sarah Hagan) drift across the tobacco fields and through time, with Jeter’s narrative juddering in and out of linearity. Like the tape deck that both characters use constantly, the film rewinds, replays and fast-forwards.
In a different film this would be distracting, but in Jeter’s paean to the long, samey days of summer it makes little difference. Each sun-scrubbed day looks much the same as another, and Jess and Moss recycle and reuse conversation, turning the same memories over and over until they are threadbare.
Memory – losing it, pinning it down, making it – is the thread that Jeter returns to again and again. Jess sits on a bed and listens repeatedly to a tape her runaway mother left her. Sometimes she hits herself, slapping her hand rhythmically against her bare thigh.
Meanwhile Moss lies and dozes, listening to self-help tapes designed to improve your memory. They promise that no-one ever forgets anything, that all they have to do is find a way to access the memory. As the narrative unwinds (and backtracks and loops) it becomes clear that Moss is trying to unlock memories of his long-dead parents.
Until he can, the only images he has of them come from Jess’ over-told fairy tale about his birth and their death. He protests her attempts to change any details, insisting she has to tell it right.
There is an anxiety about their need to confirm and reconfirm their shared memories. Idle conversations are taped and replayed, as if to confirm they really took place. Jeter never lays it out – never lays anything out – but there is a sense of secrecy, of something untrustworthy in the foundation of their lives.
Jeter toys with the viewer, interspersing idyllic sun-shimmered scenes of the pair playing on tractors or on a boat with long, static shots of Jess’s long legs and hungry face. Caught on the cusp of adulthood but unwilling to fall over, Jess veers between trying to assert Moss’s role as the child and making uncomfortably sexual overtures to him.
In one scene, soaked and sheltering in a car, she strips off her shirt and talks about sex, telling her cousin he can touch her lips if he wants. When he does she flinches back, verbally condemning herself while Moss tries to comfort her. In another they argue and Moss points a BB gun at Jess’s head to get her to do what he wants. ‘What have I told you about pointing that gun at me?’ she demands.
It makes for uncomfortable viewing, yet never quite slips over into something you can pin down as wrong. Jeter’s direction rarely allows the eye to linger on uncomfortable moments, flicking back to scenes of the pair playing with frog spawn and bugs.
His unwillingness to dwell on those scenes is aided by the strong performance from the young leads. Despite being front and centre for the duration of the film – other characters are only seen briefly and in fragments – they seem confident and assured. The back-and-forth of the bickering characters, the bored reactions to familiar cruelty, is pitch-perfect. They are not reflective, and the insularity of their world rejects external intervention.
It isn’t an easy film to watch. In some ways it doesn’t feel like a film at all, more like a gallery exhibition caught on screen. Jeter’s long, unmoving shots have a photographic quality to them. It is fascinating, however, and clever. The reflection of the fractured timeline in the film and the games played with memory and fiction are brilliantly executed. As for Jess and Moss, they linger in the mind.
Jess + Moss is part of The Coca-Cola Cinemagic Festival's World Cinema thread, and will be showing in the Odeon Cinema at Victoria Square Belafst on November 22. at 7pm. Tickets are available online at www.cinemagic.org.uk or 02890246609. Check out CultureNorthernIreland's What's On guide for more information.