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Jess + Moss

by on July 12, 2011
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A playtime fantasy of 9-year-olds stranded all alone combined with the harsh realities if said fantasies actually came true, “Jess and Moss” is a wondrous, beautiful film.

Jess (Sarah Hagen), an 18-year-old girl, and Moss (Austin Vickers), a 12-year-old boy, are second cousins who live together in a ramshackle, dilapidated rural home with no guardians of whom to speak. Left to their own devices, the kids are both flourishing and languishing, going about their days making meals, playing and generally surviving, but also — free from adult supervision — the silly, fun, mindless, sometimes stupid things kids do like shooting glass jars with BB guns or playing with fireworks.

Writer/director Clay Jeter doesn’t shy away from an important part of the development of children that age: sexuality. Jess is developing and having the yearnings girls that age have, and Moss is at that age where his pre-teen curiosity is hitting its peak, which is a potentially explosive combination. Jeter gives it full weight, but doesn’t sensationalize it or let it dominate the narrative.

Visually, with lush, vivid colors, “Jess + Moss” is a gorgeous film, and Jeter caps it off with effects that gives the movie a surreal sense of, at times, hyper-reality. Jeter mixes closeups and long shots and shots that fade in and out of focus, combined with seemingly random shots of Jess’ hair, mosquitoes and picturesque scenery.

It underscores that the film isn’t interested in dwelling on the plight of its characters; indeed, metaphorically the situation is tonally perfect. What pre-teen/teenager doesn’t feel that they’re all alone in the world, experiencing things that no one else in the world ever has and that no one else could possibly understand?

And while Jess and Moss have a mostly amiable, friendly and even loving relationship, they are still kids and we see the silly petty bickering of kids; in one scene, Jess lords over Moss, physically dominating him for no good reason and forcing him to lick her elbow for no other reason than it’s degrading to him and makes her feel good about herself.

A lesser film would focus on Jess and Moss trying to keep their co-habitation a secret, but this film concentrates on their relationship and their development given their lack of guardians and how they cope with their feelings and urges without guidance.

“Jess + Moss” is a must-see for festival-goers — a sometimes provocative, other times innocent film full of wonder. It’s a fascinating, real look at something about which every child has dreamed and had nightmares.