The opening verse of Coldplay’s “Paradise” (“When she was just a girl, she expected the world, but it flew away from her reach so she ran away in her sleep”) captures the aesthetic malleability of Clay Jeter’s Jess + Moss, a strange and intoxicating indie constructed as a series of vignettes that capture two children grappling with the overlap of trauma and nostalgia. It becomes difficult to measure any sense of passing time throughout this disjointed vision, as we hardly glimpse the life that exists outside the titular characters’ self-absorbed perspectives. At first, Jeter’s resistance to traditional character development and plot points makes for a maddening and incomplete experience. Eventually, though, the film’s lyrical view of the world deepens beyond its surface sheen.
The setup is incredibly simple: Linked only by their parents’ past mutual friendship, teenage Jess (Sarah Hagan) and pre-teen Moss (Austin Vickers) traverse a rural landscape littered with dilapidated houses, grimy river banks, and fields of overgrown brush. Jeter strips away the typical genre conventions of the coming-of-age story throughout scenes in which the children question their shared past. Though David Gordon Green’s early Southern gothic stories are an obvious influence, most evident in the film’s sun-drenched look, Jeter creates an elemental, post-apocalyptic aura throughout that feels uniquely his own.
Jess + Moss is a sometimes impenetrable film entirely constructed around flashes of a child’s distrusting memory, following its titular characters as they hang out together, discuss friendship, and lounge around for hours at a time. By placing these characters inside a closed-off world that has very little relation to reality, Jeter suggests an experience possessed by an inherent lyricism. Jess and Moss consistently yearn to reclaim an understanding of their connected lineage, and Jeter’s film is a testament to their complex exhumation process. This process comes to a head when the two children listen to analog recordings of their parents talking and a series of self-help tapes entitled Mega Memory. And for long portions of Jess + Moss, these tapes act as an ethereal voiceover narration that guides both children to question their surroundings and the memories they associate with them.
Lynchian vibes flow throughout Jess + Moss, as when Jeter suddenly cuts to the children’s current living situations after spending long passages of time in lush natural settings. When her deadbeat father leaves for the bar, Jess puts on a thick layer of makeup and puts her hair in a beehive hairdo, emulating the picture of another distant relative. Her odd nostalgia for the 1950s also permeates Moss’s experience; after eating dinner, the boy watches his grandparents slow dance to a somber Motown ballad. It’s difficult to know what to make of these tangential segments, and it’s even more jarring when the film shifts back to the vast open horizons of nature, a kind of never-ending playground where Jess and Moss seem content to recycle their shared stories and memories. Sustaining this depiction of youthful connection, one that often feels spun through the looking glass, is Jeter’s primary concern, even when it comes at the cost of narrative coherence.
Inevitably, the pressure of impending adulthood becomes impossible to keep at bay for both characters. Jeter establishes an expiration date on their relationship when, late in the film, Jess confesses to Moss that, “It’s funny how when you see something every day it changes so slowly, you can’t even tell it’s getting worse. But it is.” While this shift isn’t surprising, Jeter’s handling of their separation is both reserved and anti-climactic, something most films of this ilk blow up with melodrama. The physical motifs of blooming adolescence (Jess’s long legs jetting in and out of the frame) once so prominent eventually disappear, leaving Moss to consider his own past alone. Still, Jess + Moss isn’t short on hopeful resonance. In the final moments, as Moss sets off fireworks into a dimly lit sky, the act feels like a simultaneous celebration of everything that has come before and a declaration of mutual independence.