In the American South, they’ve been known to say, “A child’s gotta eat their share of dirt.” And Raven Jackson’s thoughtful, fragmentary portrait of a Black woman over four decades of rural Mississippian life certainly encompasses the kind of hard life lessons that could be thus summed up. But the strange poetry of the film’s title also gently turns that harsh homily on its head, instead relating it to the tradition, inherited from African ancestors and still relatively common in parts of the country, for Black women to gather across generations and harvest little scoops of pale dirt from the roadside — actually the chalky mineral kaolinite which is plentiful across the southeastern U.S. — to eat, as a kind of communal ritual.
“All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” is deeply invested in the investigation of tradition, family and memory, and the sensory, evocative language of the title befits its gorgeous 35mm imagery, which is so tactile that at times, if you touched the screen you wouldn’t be surprised to find its surface textured beneath your fingers. Maybe scaly like fishskin, or springy like grassland, or cool and sodden like clay.
It is the 1970s, and Mack (played as a child by Kaylee Nicole Johnson), is being taught how to fish by her father, Isaiah (Chris Chalk), on the banks of the drowsy river near their home. Her sister Josie (Jayah Henry) is there too, but it is quite some time before we get a good look at any of the actors’ faces. Instead, trained on the details of this idyllic scene, on the kind of moments that might stick in the recall of an older woman looking back, DP Jomo Fray’s camera, like Miguel Calvo’s shimmering sound design and Sasha Gordon and Victor Magro’s subtle scoring, favors a natural environment seething with plant and animal life as much as it cares for human drama. Mack’s impressions of that summer afternoon are slivers of sensation: her childish hand stroking the gasping fish like a pet; the hum and sizzle of insect sussuration in the warm, still air; her father’s voice somewhere behind her, gently coaxing, “Take your time, take your time.”
Jackson, a poet and photographer making her feature debut after her Criterion Channel-approved shorts “Nettles” and “A Guide to Breathing Underwater,” follows Isaiah’s advice — arguably, in the early stages, to a patience-testing degree. But when the film, edited along a dreamlike bias by Apichatpong Weerasethakul collaborator Lee Chatametikool, finds its elliptical rhythm, you realize it is structured intuitively, allowed to skip around in time the better to obey the unpredictable laws of memory. We build up a partial picture of this quiet, undemonstrative but rich and loving life by moving back and forth through Mack’s various lifestages, starting at infancy, cradled in the arms of her mother Evelyn (another striking turn from “The Woman King’s” Sheila Atim), to middle-age, when she returns to the site of that first fishing scene, once again stirring up stormclouds of silt from the riverbed with her fingers.
A lot of these little vignettes are moments of gentle instruction: Mack being shown how to cut and gut a fish and in turn passing on that knowledge; Mack being taught how to kiss; Mack learning that her heart can break during a casual, halting conversation with a shy boy behind a grocery store. Most often though, perhaps because it’s the phase most revealing of the people we become, the film returns to Mack (Charleen McClure, in a beautifully understated debut performance) in the period from late adolescence to young adulthood. During this span, Mack’s memories of the dazzling, mysterious Evelyn, who died suddenly when Mack was still young, come full circle, as she starts to gather a mystique of her own. One whopper of a family secret is revealed to us by nothing more than a few searching glances across a kitchen table, and a phrase that grown-up Mack murmurs to grown-up Josie: “I always knew she was yours.”
If “Dirt Roads” bears any recent comparison in its audaciously non-linear excavation of remembered joy and sorrow, especially as experienced with a beloved parent, it’s to Charlotte Wells’ “Aftersun,” also produced by Barry Jenkins and distributed by A24. But where Wells’ film benefitted from having a fixed vantage point from which it could look back, Jackson’s approach is less stable. At times her film’s mood of reverie threatens to overwhelm whatever story momentum it can build: It’s not just that her sensual images are snapshots of multiple different thens, it’s that it is hard to gauge just where to place the film’s now.
Perhaps it’s with that brief glimpse of Mack as an older woman, staring into the cloudy river, but even that scene, with Mack at her oldest, is shot like a remembrance of things past: sometimes trying to piece together the story feels like trying to hit a moving target from a platform that is itself constantly shifting. But if “All Dirt Roads” perhaps does not connect quite as powerfully as it could on a narrative level, it marks the arrival of an arresting new talent in Raven Jackson, at the very least as the creator of the kind of cinema you do not watch as much as touch and smell and taste. It tastes of earth. It tastes of grass. It tastes of grief and glee and mealtimes at the family table. It tastes, of course, of salt.