According to the press release, “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 out on a journey exploring deep secrets, identity, and hopes of the future in the wilds of their world.” It delivers, but in a very roundabout way.
Jess is a high-school graduate who has lived with her inattentive father since her mother left them (which she blames herself for). Since his parents' death, Moss has been raised by his very Christian grandparents. Jess and Moss spend their summer exploring, lighting fireworks, and generally doing kid stuff. Sarah Hagan and Austin Vickers deliver incredibly believable performances, and Clay Jeter's direction is spot on. There's a sugar-coated innocence that permeates the characters, and melts away as the film progresses.
The script, and specifically the character interactions, are wonderful - until we reach the conflict: it felt stilted, and a little rushed. The conflict is delivered to us in a single scene, and it amounts to a very childish argument (which admittedly fits, considering the characters are, in fact, children). Everything that happens after the conflict is great too - it's just that one speed bump that probably could've been rewritten.
The main theme of Jess + Moss is memory. The entire story is presented as a string of intertwining vignettes, which is a very effective (and often enjoyable) technique. The visual styling recalls memory as well, although at times it feels overdone. Too much grain was applied to some scenes, and others feel like they were pushed through instagram.
Another major speed bump - this one really took me out of the film - was the sub-par sound design. Much like the visual styling, some scenes were mixed perfectly fine, but most sound like they were recorded on cassette. This could have been intentional, though, as Moss records many of his conversations with Jess, and Jeter may have wanted it to feel like Moss's memories. The worst is when added background effects (ie: crickets) overpower dialogue. The sound effects are tinny as well - they sound like they were recorded on the cheapest equipment possible. Being a zero-budget filmmaker myself, I can appreciate the need to do things inexpensively, but there is no reason for the footsteps, doors opening, etc, to sound the way they did.
David D'Arcy, of Screen Daily, hailed Jess + Moss as, “A portrait of the freshness and vulnerability of youth,” and I think he is exactly right. It's not a bad movie by any means, but it's not a great one either. After watching it, I thought it was forgettable overall, but after letting it sit overnight, I'm starting to appreciate it more. This is a great film to recommend to your friend who is getting into art house cinema: it exists somewhere between generic indie and art/experimental film.