All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt review – experimental film pulls on the senses

There will be a moment in All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt, the gorgeous, unconventional debut from Raven Jackson, when the film’s spell works. It may be in the first 15 minutes, lulled by Mississippi’s lush soundscape and meditative shots of a southern summer, or an extended take in a hospital delivery room. It could wait until the final scene, an ode to memories already recorded and yet to come.

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The pull of this sparsely worded, deeply sensitive film will probably depend on what triggers one’s personal sentimentality and, more pertinently, how much you know about it going in. The plot is so loosely outlined, and the camera so frequently turned to hands over faces, that it could be difficult, sans context, to pick up on its ambitious logic: a series of non-chronological memories in the life of one Black woman, connected by the senses of touch and sound and particularly attuned to the lingering feel of one’s skin on another.

The spell worked for me about a third of the way through, during an audaciously long sequence in which the adult Mack (Charleen McClure) embraces a past returned lover (Reginald Helms Jr). (There is just enough dialogue, tucked in around too-pregnant pauses, to infer that he left town and married someone else.) The narrative arc and the couple’s painful past is rendered almost entirely wordless – hands caressing into tearful hug, an arm stroking a back in the way that imprints on the mind, release. The nearly 10-minute scene left me hungry – for more words, for characters – yet struck by the depth of feeling one can evoke from pure, thoughtfully rendered physicality.

Most of Jackson’s scenes in this 96-minute film play out this way: sumptuously constructed vignettes, pulling on the eyes and the wistfulness of memory to feel another’s life. We see Mack’s life in nonlinear snippets spanning decades, from her 70s childhood onward, linked by the feel of her world – silt, sand, dirt; the hands of her late mother (Sheila Atim), father (Chris Chalk), sister (Moses Ingram), grandmother, lover, child. (Mack is played as a child by Kaylee Nicole Johnson.) The shots are alternatively lived in and heightened, as if staged for a gallery. Throughout, cinematographer Jomo Fray’s camera gravitates the fingertips, which is at first almost frustrating, then effective in orienting viewers to the connective tissue of Mack’s memory.

Once you notice the indications of character – Mack’s two braids, her sister’s birthmark on her eyelid – the time shifts become less blurred, though never entirely clear. The film is often achingly beautiful, but lacks for details on Mack’s personality, how she feels about anything in this collage, or why a crucial decision regarding her child is made. The vagueness can drag. Still, by the second half, as the timeline of her life begins to coalesce and one adjusts to the film’s unhurried rhythm, Jackson’s bold artistic vision – to visually render the intensity and specialness of sense memories – feels more clear, and thus more potent.

Ever attuned to the non-visual senses, the film’s power owes in part to its fantastic soundscape by Miguel “Maiki” Calvo with melancholic music from Sasha Gordon and Victor Magro. From the very first frame, All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt is alive with the music of Mack’s world, from old records to the rustle of grass underfoot. Crickets, mosquitoes, bird calls, the squish of mud in hand, the various shades of rainfall – Jackson is hyperaware of the ways certain sounds embody nostalgia, which has the effect of layering the viewer’s associations on to Mack’s vague longing. The film’s sound is so all-encompassing and dimensional as to nearly impart the weight of humidity; it triggered my own memories of a brimming, freighted summer night.

Lavish in its visual appreciation and withholding in the details, All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt does convey, in the end, the sense of a full life. It may not always land and gets lost in itself on the way there, but Jackson has crafted a beautiful experiment indicative of ambitious vision, one whose magic outweighs its weaknesses.

  • All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt premiered at the Sundance film festival and will be released later this year