‘All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt’ review: Pieces of memory form an exquisite puzzle of a life

Jaclyn Martinez/SUNDANCE/TNS

The look, sound and feel of falling rain is one of cinema’s great gifts. But with millions of restless, anxious app scrollers ordering up that rain on demand, its essential gorgeousness is now a commodity — just another sound effect, and sleep aid.

The true magic of it, though, has a way of speaking to poets and dreamers with a camera. In the exquisite riddle “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt,” writer-director Raven Jackson captures so much with gently rolling thunder, a quiet rainfall, a hand skimming the surface of a river.

Jackson’s film tells the story of one woman’s life, from childhood to advanced years, but fluidly and out of narrative order. One memory flows into another and we don’t always know where we are, or when. This is the movie’s strategy, not a continuity accident. While she shaped it in the editing, as all filmmakers do (editing is by Lee Chatametikool), Jackson’s assured touch suggests she knew what she wanted from the start: a poem in motion about a woman remembering.

Its subject is Mack, a young girl we first see learning how to catch a catfish. Kaylee Nicole Johnson plays her at this stage in her life; as her father (Chris Chalk) urges her to take her time, Mack’s younger sister Josie (Jayah Henry) watches close by. Later, Mack’s mother (Sheila Atim, a miracle worker in a few crucial scenes) completes the lesson, at home in the kitchen, skinning the fish for supper.

“All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” winds its story around momentous incidents — a mother’s tragically early death and the fate of a newborn years later chief among them. But in the sequences featuring the adult Mack (played by Charleen McClure) and the adult Josie (Moses Ingram), what might be treated as dramatic turning points or big reveals unfold instead as subtler markers along the road of Mack’s life. With her terrific cinematographer Jomo Fray, shooting on location in rural Mississippi and Tennessee, director Jackson works wordlessly much of the time. These are people acutely aware of their physical world, beautiful and mysterious.

It’s a high-wire act, this movie, and without the central relationship between the adult sisters as a compass I don’t know if Jackson’s approach would work at all. But McClure and Ingram are first-rate, as vivid in their unspoken understanding (I’m keeping a key story element a secret here) as they are in their easygoing banter. In an interview with cinemafemme.com with Chicago-based critic and programmer Rebecca Martin, the filmmaker acknowledged her intention to honor Mack’s life of “quieter, mundane moments, like learning how to skin a fish, and touching my grandma’s hands. I wanted in this film to hold those moments with equal weight to the larger ones.”

The film’s title came from a poem Jackson wrote years ago, inspired by a conversation with her grandmother about eating clay dirt. There are times when the poetry, however evocative, could’ve used a little more prose, to keep the signposts and time signatures clearer. But Jackson’s film, with its unusually detailed and lulling soundscape (frogs, raindrops, murmurs of the heart) and unerringly well-cast performers in natural settings, isn’t trying to straighten out the swerves in Mack’s remembering. Memories of where we’ve been have a way of swimming in our heads, unpredictably, and that is how this film works.

The comparison’s ridiculous, I suppose, since he worked squarely within the Hollywood studio system, but composer David Raksin once said that nobody should listen to his film scores the first time, since they had a way of confusing people. Too challenging, or elusive, or something. For some that comment will apply to this slippery catfish of a film debut; the hypnotic quality of “All Dirt Roads” may come through even more persuasively on a second encounter.

Producer Barry Jenkins (”Moonlight,” “If Beale Street Could Talk”) served as Jackson’s champion on the project, and while there are plenty of influences afoot, ranging from Jenkins to Terrence Malick to Toni Morrison, “All Dirt Roads” is guided, fragment by fragment, by a new director’s way of seeing and listening to a woman’s life — in all its puzzle pieces.



3.5 stars (out of 4)

MPA rating: PG (for thematic content and brief sensuality)

Running time: 1:32

How to watch: Now in theaters