A whispered symphony of sense memories that cycles through the decades like rain water — heavy with images and ambient sounds that trickle down from the generations above before they’re absorbed into the earth and suffused back into the air — the vague but vividly rendered “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” runs a little drier every time writer-director Raven Jackson loops back to squeeze another drop of meaning from the textures and traditions that connect a Black Mississippi woman to the place where she was born (and vice-versa).
Her name is Mackenzie, she’s played by a small troupe of different actresses over the course of Jackson’s freeform debut, and the body they share between them serves as a kind of living conduit between then, now, and whatever comes next. Her story is filtered through a too-studied slipstream of a movie that makes its vignettes feel as neatly arranged as the verses of a poem, its scenes spanning from the ’60s to the ’80s but all located in an eternal now that quickly does away with the linearity of flashbacks or forwards.
There’s no past, present, or future here — only the swirling eddies of history, which churn everything that touches them into a single unbroken tense. One thing feeds into another until time becomes two-dimensional enough that Mack can be a little baby getting bathed in the sink and a grown woman massaging her pregnant belly in the tub all at once, these moments separated by some 25 or 30 years but also as close to each other as the clouds are to the sky (Jomo Fray’s gorgeous 35mm cinematography helps to sell the soft porousness of that illusion).
The people in Jackson’s film are likewise inextricable from their environment, a relationship personified by how the women carry on a West African tradition which centers on eating clay dirt right out of the earth. There are a number of pragmatic reasons why some Southern Black communities still continue to practice geophagia, but Jackson naturally opts for a more poetic explanation. “This you,” Mack’s grandmother tells her and her sister Josie in one of this movie’s typically elliptical sequences, which is framed with the haziness of family lore. “Dirt and water.”
A pointillistic series of grace notes in search of a greater melody, “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” is determined to elaborate upon what Mack’s grandmother means by that, and in as few words as possible. The hushed explanation it fishes out of the river is at once both hyper-specific and frustratingly vague. Each of this movie’s flourishes is as soft and tender as the skin on the back of Mack’s hand — which Jackson’s camera often stares at for minutes on end, as if trying to dowse out a deeper truth from its pores — but their monotone gauziness doesn’t articulate the ineffable so much as it flattens its textures. “Everything changes and nothing changes,” and while individual moments give rare shape to that liquid permanence, the gentle vortex they feed into seldom feels as tactile as “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” tells us that it should. The mundane can always be found in the profound, but the opposite discovery proves less reliable.
“Not too quick,” Mack’s father says with the movie’s first breath, teaching his daughter how to reel in a catfish before chiding her for throwing it back. It’s a piece of advice that Jackson heeds like gospel throughout her film, which can be slow to the point that it doesn’t seem to be moving at all. Its least effective sequences, which include a never-ending hug between Mack and the on-again off-again love of her life, Wood (who’s played as an adult by Reginald Helms Jr.), evoke the stereogram-like super-focus of a Tsai Ming-liang movie to an even greater extent than they do any of Jackson’s more obvious inspirations, which range from “Daughters of the Dust” to “Songs My Brother Taught Me.”
“All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” more forcefully threads Mack into the fabric of the world around her whenever it cheats towards the personal and away from the symbolic. Playing Mack from adolescence to her early thirties (which accounts for most of the scenes in this movie), first-time actress Charleen McClure brings a rich sense of lived history to someone who was clearly written on the wind; Mack is conceived as more of an intergenerational conduit than a dramatic character in her own right, but McClure’s scrim-like smile hints at an ocean of feeling behind her teeth.
An atypically talkative scene in which Mack and Josie (played as an adult by Moses Ingram) sit on the porch of their house and trade family memories — part of the sisters’ desperate bid to make sense of their shared future — is as posed as everything else in Jackson’s film, but also loaded with lived experience in a way that makes its lack of context seem like a needless act of denial.
The same frustration crops up during the earlier passage that establishes Mack and Wood’s mutual crush, as Jackson breaks from the movie’s free-associative rhythm with a series of more explicitly connected moments that skip through the years like a stone across the surface of a still like. One minute, Mack and Wood are two kids, sniping at each other as they bike through a small town sometime in the mid ’70s. The next, they’re teenagers, whose ribbing is suddenly embossed with a semi-embarrassed flirtation. The next, they’re two faceless bodies, entwined in the dark.
These relatively crystalline snapshots create the fleshy sense of accumulation that’s missing from the film’s more opaque moments; feeling through the characters’ skin, rather than just staring at it, allows Jackson’s beautiful images to stick where they might otherwise wash away with the rain. Beautiful as it is to watch pre-teen Mack lie on the floorboards of her parents’ house and study her mom’s blood-red toenail polish as she dances to Gladys Knight & the Pips (Mack’s tragic mom is played by the always captivating Sheila Atim), that flashbulb memory dims next to a scarring glimpse of the wedding band on Wood’s hand as he presses Mack into his chest. “If I Were Your Woman,” indeed.
Suddenly, you can feel the water saturating into the dirt instead of just flowing over it. That sensation can be hard to come by in a film that’s almost entirely composed of transitional moments, but when Jackson gets the balance right, those moments don’t just feel as if they could last forever, they feel as if they already do.
“All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. A24 will release it later this year.