Home Video Hovel- Jess + Moss
As the title would suggest, Jess + Moss zeroes in on the relationship between its two main characters, putting the titular pair under microscopic scrutiny. Jess is a girl out of high school who still behaves like a young child and Moss is a young child, not quite pubescent, but getting awfully close. Both are quasi-orphans – his parents died in a car accident and he now lives with his grandparents; her mother left her with an emotionally absent father – and they spend, it would seem, most of their time together, nurturing an intense bond that bears resemblance to a brother-sister relationship but is also constantly stalked by the lurking specter of their burgeoning sexuality. Set against the beautiful desolation of the rural Midwest, they play and talk in abandoned, dilapidated houses, wrecked cars and endless waves of grain (it’s so narrow in its focus on these two and its settings are in such a state of decay that for a time it seems like it might be a post-apocalypse film). As a character study, it’s often precociously aimless and plagued with some amateur filmmaking gestures but, by the end, it’s also surprisingly affecting. Though you never quite feel like the movie digs deep enough into its characters, it still manages to explore their peculiar friendship with enough poignant details to render its conclusion moving and earned.
While the two main actors acquit themselves rather well, the real star of Jess + Moss is the formally challenging and practically experimental editing. A great many scenes in the film play in the audio, separated in time or space from what is being shown. The two main characters talk about their lives, their dreams, their fears, while the camera focuses on something completely different, often something interesting in the setting. The cutting bounces around without concern for continuity or other perceived rules of filmmaking and results in an oblique, poetic method of storytelling reminiscent of Malick. It’s a wonderful, contrapuntal use of video and audio to simultaneously reveal the characters and the world they live in and how these two things inform each other. It’s hard to imagine these people living anywhere else.
The second credited person in the post-film credits after director Clay Jeter is editor Isaac Hagy. While it’s surprising to see an editor in that position in the credits, it’s also wholly appropriate in this case. The editing is integral to the film’s effectiveness, turning what could have been a tried-and-true tale of two misfits coming together against an increasingly hostile world into a more ephemeral meditation on memory, the intensity of childhood impulses and the loss that accompanies aging. The cuts are sharp and smart, with connections between images and the audio that are very well thought out. It’s less “literal” than “literary,” cutting on the feeling two images produce rather than taking cues from the physical reality of the film’s events. There are callbacks and repetitions that pack emotional resonance and a fearless inventiveness, such as a moment when a tape recorder is heard rewinding and the footage follows suit, rewinding with the audio.
But while this filmmaking approach is exciting at first, after some time, it starts to feel like Jess + Moss doesn’t have enough going on behind the curtain. The obliqueness of the narrative starts to feel less like an intentional approach to the material and more “saved in the editing room,” leveraging some nice cinematography and avante-gardisms to save the film from less-than-stellar writing or directing. When the film reveals more specific details about their lives, it becomes shallower and, at times, ludicrous. A scene depicting the home life of the two characters is incredibly misguided, staged in an absurd, surrealist fashion. The colors are blown out artificially. He is wearing a dress shirt many sizes too big for him. The grandparents dance to an old phonograph while staring at him and she poses in front of a mirror in her underwear while wearing a wig and smoking a cigarette. The absurdity just doesn’t fit in with everything else and it feels like a digression from another film. It heightens the alienation they feel at home, sure, but it’s just didactic in tone and execution. Similarly, as the film nears its inevitable conclusion, the children begin to utter lines of simple homespun wisdom that defies credulity.
The real kick to the film is the depiction of the characters’ sexual awakening and the confusion it brings to their relationship. Jess is significantly older and worldlier than Moss (after she explains seven minutes of heaven to him, she proudly tells him she’s played it lots of times) but she’s also clearly scared of that aspect of herself and chooses to remain, emotionally, in the realm of childhood as a defense. He’s just discovering these impulses for himself and scenes of childlike frolicking start to take on a dangerous, flirtatious nature. The film’s depiction of their unwitting game of sexual chicken, while being relatively chaste and innocent, nevertheless captures the fearful and erotic nature of these clumsy forays into young adulthood; how the mere thought of kissing someone can seem explosive and deadly. The ultimate manifestation of their confused desires is surprising, frightening and wholly believable in terms of memorable childhood cruelties, the kind that can often significantly shape an entire adulthood. There are enough moments in the film of this nature, moments that capture the half-remembered traumas and joys of childhood, that Jess + Moss ultimately overcomes its shortcomings and emerges as a fundamentally flawed but engaging depiction of adolescence.