A Stunning Meditation on Memory, All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt Dips Its Fingers into the River of TimeMovies Reviews Sundance 2023
Raven Jackson’s debut feature, All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt, has a southern sense of memory that I adore. It’s not that the coming-of-age film—which ambles around Mississippi, dipping its fingers into the sun-warmed river of time—is full of particulars. At least, not like that usually means. There aren’t any Whataburgers or Ward’s, no recognizable football teams or radio-favorite needledrops. In fact, the movie is so poetic as to be nearly faceless, which means it could apply to so many of us. But it’s all specific to its central force.
An opening moment sees young Mack (Kaylee Nicole Johnson) fishing with her father. It’s quiet, simple. Slow enough to allow memories of my own dad taking me fishing to bubble to the surface of my consciousness. The delicacy and patience, the youthful aggravation tainting the natural sensations all around. The film encourages this kind of dual awareness, where you hold both this movie’s memories and your own in your mind, and asks for the same kind of patience and quiet dedication as a parent on a fishing trip. If you assent, All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt is endlessly rewarding, a tactile sense-memory tapestry of all the things that matter.
There’s very little dialogue in All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt. Needless sentences are replaced by Black hands, running over each other, running through silt, touching cool truck metal, or reeling in rope. It frames hands more often than anything else, using an elliptical structure and a camera fascinated with touch in order to evoke the language of memories. You can’t smell or feel anything when you watch a movie, and those sensations are perhaps the strongest stimulations of the past. An embrace, a breeze, a humid and beating sun—these call up days spent with childhood crushes or summers running amok. They smell like sweat and the sweet-decay medley of nature. Jackson’s thankfully not working in Smell-O-Vision, so tactile images of familiar textures and strange details help make up for the senses she can’t reach.
That’s how you remember things, right? It’s not just that you remember where you were when you learned that someone close to you died, it’s that you remember that you were wearing an older pair of socks that you’d been meaning to throw out because one had a hole in the big toe. Your heart was breaking, and your toe was cold. Jackson taps into that unique quirk of our strange minds. Mack weathers death and heartbreak, radiates joy and love. But what makes the big Hallmark emotions hit are the minutiae. A monarch butterfly lazily beating its wings on the cracked tan leather of a car’s seat. Red ribbons erupt from black hair like mini lava plumes.
Mack’s life plays out poetically. She (mostly played by Charleen McClure, with Johnson and Zainab Jah taking on her youth and old age) and her childhood friend Wood (as an adult, played by Reginald Helms Jr.) go through milestones together and apart. A house burns down, a kiss is shared. Wood moves on, Mack stays behind. He returns, Mack is waiting. And, in every moment, touch grounds her and sounds consume her. All the actors are restrained; content or not, they stare, hug, slump, climb. Words aren’t what stick with you anyways.
Water, the film’s major symbol—the focus of one of the longer and more touching pieces of conversation in the movie—is everywhere. Storms and muddy water ramp up tension, especially as someone sits in a bathtub, listening to the thunder outside. An encompassing, rich soundscape washes over us, making the raindrops hit our skin through an ever-present patter, punctuated by frogs and cicadas. The same effect is generated by roaring fire and quickening breath. These are gambles, betting on technique and vision. A non-linear non-narrative could fall apart, or wander, for the 92 minutes of All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt. But it’s a magnet for your emotions, and Jackson’s filmmaking never falters.
Her approach quickly becomes second nature. Faces are often obscured, and the camera alternates between immersive and removed points-of-view: One focuses on fingers and the things they remember—a little like popping on a VR helmet—and the other takes an odd third-person stance, where we’re a manifestation of the out-of-body perspective that creates the memory itself.
Memories aren’t reality. We form them how we need to. Jackson’s camera floats around to highlight the most important images and sensations, regardless of how honestly Mack could’ve experienced those details. A scene when she’s asleep as a child, swayed in her mother’s arms, can’t really be from her “perspective” as we’ve understood much of the touch-focused film. But it still resonates as true. She isn’t conscious of everything that happens in the sequence, and we don’t believe she literally remembers it all, but it’s easy to believe that this is how she tells this story—how she built it up in her mind, this image of the isolated, loving, physically affectionate mom. Jackson creates, then breaks, rules to replicate our own unreliable, constructed narratives.
All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt announces a confident, arresting new artist who’s willing to lean on more experimental techniques and structures to arrive at the honesty she seeks. Raven Jackson’s created a beautifully specific ode to a life fully lived, which helps make it an elegant instrument of subjectivity. Like the water from which it draws so much thematic meaning, its fluid motion and form can contort to fit whatever experiences you’ve encountered, whatever events you dread, whatever hopes you still nurture. And it’s all so closely observed you can almost reach out and touch it.
Director: Raven Jackson
Writer: Raven Jackson
Starring: Charleen McClure, Moses Ingram, Kaylee Nicole Johnson, Reginald Helms Jr., Sheila Atim, Chris Chalk, Jayah Henry, Zainab Jah
Release Date: January 22, 2023 (Sundance)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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