In the American South, they were known to say, “A child must eat their share of dirt.” And Raven Jackson’s thoughtful, piecemeal portrait of a black woman’s four decades of rural Mississippian life certainly includes the hard life lessons that can be summed up this way. But the odd poem of the film’s title also gently turns that rigid religiosity on its head, instead relating it to the tradition, inherited from African ancestors and still relatively common in some parts of the country, of generations of black women gathering and collecting small scoops. . Pale dirt from roadsides—actually the chalky mineral kaolinite that is abundant throughout the southeastern United States—is to be eaten as a sort of communal ritual.
“All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” is deeply invested in its investigation of heritage, family and memory, and the sensitive, evocative language of the title matches its gorgeous 35mm images, which are so tactile that at times, if you touch the screen you can feel the texture of its surface under your fingers. Don’t be surprised to find out. May be scaly like fish skin, or springy like a meadow, or cool and rotten like clay.
It’s the 1970s, and Mac (played as a child by Kelly Nicole Johnson) is teaching her father, Isaiah (Chris Chalk), how to fish on the banks of a sleepy river near their home. Her sister Josie (Jayah Henry) is also there, but it takes a long time to get a good look at the actors’ faces. Instead, trained in the finer details of this beautiful scene, the kind of moments that might stick in an older woman’s memory looking back, DP Jomo Frey’s camerawork, like Miguel Calvo’s sparkling sound design and Sasha Gordon and Victor Magro’s subtle scoring, graces a natural environment. Surrounding plant and animal life as much as it cares about human drama. Mack’s impressions of that summer afternoon are slivers of sensation: his childish hands stroking a gasping fish like a pet; the buzzing and humming of a multitude of insects in the warm, still air; Somewhere behind him was his father’s voice, softly saying, “Take your time, take your time.”
Jackson, a poet and photographer making his feature debut after his Criterion Chanel-approved shorts “Nettles” and “A Guide to Breathing Underwater,” followed Isaiah’s advice — arguably, to an early, patience-testing degree. But when the film, edited with a dream-like bias by Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s collaborator Lee Chatametikul, finds its elliptical rhythm, you realize it’s structured intuitively, allowed to skip in time to obey the unpredictable laws of memory. We get a partial picture of this quiet, unpretentious but rich and loving life through Mack’s various journeys, from childhood, cradled in the arms of his mother Evelyn (another interesting turn from Sheila Atim of “The Woman Kings”), to middle age, when He returned to the scene of that first fishing scene, again stirring up storm clouds of silt from the river bed with his fingers.
Many of these short vignettes are moments of gentle instruction: Mack is shown how to cut and gut a fish and thereby pass on that knowledge; Teaching Mac how to kiss; Mac learns that her heart can be broken during a casual, suspended conversation with a shy boy in the back of a grocery store. Often though, perhaps because that’s the most revealing stage of us humans, the film returns to Mack (Charlene McClure, in a beautifully understated first act) in the period from late adolescence to young adulthood. During this time, Mack’s memories of the mysterious, mysterious Evelyn, who died suddenly when Mack was still young, come full circle, as he begins to piece together a mystery of his own. A few searching glances across the kitchen table and a phrase that grew up Mac scolds Josie: “I always knew she was yours.”
If “Dirt Roads” bears any recent comparison in its boldly non-linear excavation of remembered joys and sorrows, particularly as experienced with a beloved parent, it’s Charlotte Wells’ “Aftersun,” also produced by Barry Jenkins and distributed by A24. But whereas Welles’ film benefited from having a fixed vantage point from which to look back, Jackson’s perspective is less stable. At times the exuberant mood of his films threatens to overwhelm the momentum the story can build: it’s not just that his emotional images are snapshots of multiple disparate images. thens, it is difficult to determine where to place the film now
Perhaps it’s with that brief glimpse of Mac as an older woman, looking out over the cloudy river, but even that scene, with Mac at her oldest, is shot like some memory of the past: sometimes trying to piece the story together feels like a platform from a platform. Hit a moving target that itself is constantly moving. But if “All Dirt Roads” doesn’t connect as powerfully as it might on a narrative level, it marks the arrival of an arresting new talent in Raven Jackson, at least not as a creator of the kind of movies you do. Watch as much as touch and smell and taste. It tastes like earth. It tastes like grass. It is the taste of grief and joy and meal time at the family table. It definitely tastes like salt.