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All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt (2023)

History wraps around itself while you're watching "All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt," setting the life of one person against those of her parents, grandparents, sister and her own child. Different time periods in the same Mississippi setting mesh together, not urgently for impact but languidly for poetry, events crossing across each other like the wandering tuning of an old radio. Dialogue is sparse but the soundtrack is dense with the noise of rain, insects, running water, while the images are lengthy shots of hands, vegetation and mud. A story about one young rural mother builds up incrementally, a sad story; but the film roots her so firmly into the landscape that she and her pain might be aspects of some larger, more spiritual thing.

The Mississippi land stays consistent but the times change; and the face of the main character, Mack, changes with them. Played by Kaylee Nicole Johnson as a youngster and Zainab Jah as a mature lady, the bulk of the story is of young adulthood, where Mack (now Charleen McClure) navigates a relationship with Wood (Reginald Helms Jr.) and confides in sister Josie (Moses Ingram). Mack becomes pregnant, before feeling compelled to make a personal sacrifice for reasons the script only outlines but which the actor fully inhabits. Memories of the girls' mother Evelyn enter and recede, their past made to feel distinctly immediate by Raven Jackson's contemplative direction plus the fact that Evelyn is played by Sheila Atim, an actor whose personal gravity seems like it could control the weather.

The film privileges the senses of touch and taste over the other three, to the point where they turn into the language of the story. When two characters meet as grown-ups before the audience knows why their encounter might be poignant, Ms. Jackson declines to foreshadow events out loud in words and instead has the pair just hug almost silently for three minutes of screen time. Meanwhile vision is deprecated, as a less authentic record of the things that matter. The camera lingers behind the heads of characters facing away from it, placing them against the scenery being observed without letting the audience see the eyes of the person doing the observing. Other films do this for tension; but here it's more like immersion, immersion of the characters in something that envelops Mack, Josie and everyone else. Ms. Jackson's style situates both emotional peace and acceptance of loss within the natural world, their natural source; a hopeful and holistic notion as well as a good reason for leaving the natural world alone.


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