Lazy days of a Southern summer seeped in kudzu collide with two young people’s awareness of a disintegrated family in Clay Jeter’s impressionist film, “Jess + Moss.” Ideally situated in Sundance’s New Frontier section (though, in an earlier more adventurous time for this fest, it would have been a dramatic competish entry) and certain to be lost in Berlin’s sprawling Generation section, pic will depend on enthusiastic word of mouth and critical applause to win over distribs and buyers specializing in art cinema gems for upscale markets.
Jess (Sarah Hagan) is a girl in her mid-teens who may or may not be sister to younger lad Moss (Austin Vickers), both of whom find themselves at a derelict farm somewhere in the South (actually, the outskirts of Murray, Kentucky). Jess is constantly returning to tape-recordings made by her mother before she abandoned her family for parts unknown, the tapes meant in part as an explanation of her decision to break away from a domestic life.
Inside the main building, collapsing into itself like a rotting gingerbread house (Gregory Grover’s production design is remarkable), Jess tries to set up little games, such as demanding that Moss sit at the little kids’ dinner table, even though there are just the two of them. In scenes like these or in the many wanderlust sequences outdoors, Jeter’s film takes on the quality of a sustained dream, as if the theatrical conceits of Jean Genet were married to a children’s story retold via William Faulker’s Southern brand of stream of consciousness.
The film suspends and disregards logic for an atmosphere caught between past and present, and Jeter cinematically conveys the feeling of remembrances of times past while situating his young people in a present that celebrates summer as a time of wiling away the hours, doing nothing in particular. Layered on top of the small celebrations (including a lovely sequence with evening fireworks) is a palpable dread that these kids have been utterly abandoned and forced to fend for themselves, trying in their own ways to make sense of their predicament, and unsure if they can.
Hagan and Vickers enjoy playing up the moments when the pair bicker with each other, as Jess always tries to lord it over the shorter and younger Moss. But Jeter is careful to nudge these good young actors away from any psychological intent, leaving it open to the audience to interpret what these characters’ actual fates may be.
Will Basanta’s and Jeter’s lovingly rendered Super 16 cinematography plays a crucial role in conveying this magical place’s timeless quality; add a period look to the kids’ clothing and take away a few props, and we may as well be in a time setting a century ago. The pic also brilliantly uses specific places (the house, the kudzu growth) as visual symbols which are nevertheless thoroughly grounded in reality. Mark Stoeckinger’s sound work is astonishing and densely structured, with a repeated use of the Debbie Reynolds’ tune “Tammy’s in Love” as a weird kind of anthem.