Nestled deep in the first half of “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt,” once we have acclimated to its sensuous audiovisual idioms, is an encounter between former lovers Mack (Charleen McClure) and Wood (Reginald Helms Jr.), no longer sharing a mutual path. Few words escape their lips, but their hands hold onto one another with loving desperation, as if hoping that through a long embrace, everything unsaid could, by osmosis, seep into their bodies. Their kinetic exchange — with fingers clasped tightly that communicate their unwillingness to let go — sits in nearly silent contemplation.
Elsewhere in writer-director Raven Jackson’s debut feature, however, the perpetual cacophony of nature in the rural South scores the rich imagery like a tireless orchestra that ties everything we witness back to the land. The sounds of torrential rain drenching everything in its way, of crickets and frogs serenading the moon, all intermingle in communion with each other and the human beings that share their space.
Unburdened by linear chronology, the collection of vignettes that comprise “All Dirt Roads” map the story of Mackenzie, or Mac, a Black woman growing up in Mississippi in the 1970s. In one instant, we inhabit her childhood while she innocently learns to kiss with her hand, and in the next, we see adolescent Mac explaining she doesn’t know how to swim. With the same ease, we later land in her toddler days, as she sleeps in the arms of her mother (Sheila Atim).
Not unlike last year’s “Aftersun,” Jackson handles memory with the lucidity of emotion and sensation as the only truth that one can extract from recollection. The snippets of life that shape how we move through the world speak to us in whispers of consciousness, sometimes many years after the fact. They become inextricable from us, and we must try to interpret them not logically but instinctively. How did it feel? What did it sound like? Their meaning is trapped within the details of what they provoked in us on a molecular level.
Kaylee Nicole Johnson first plays young Mac, who learned to fish from her father and to scale the catch from mom. Curious about all living things, she runs her hand through the captured aquatic creature’s body with a kind touch. Her father warns her not to free them. That tactile mode of engagement with everything that surrounds her tells us more about Mac than any of the scarce lines she utters across all the ages through which we follow her.
Indeed, skin-on-skin contact and gentle caressing stand as one of Jackson’s most recurrent and indelible motifs. The number of shots of hands surely outnumber those of faces in “All Dirt Roads.” Because our hands are vehicles for connection: to hold a baby, to offer comfort, to express desire, to show another living thing how you feel without having to say it, to hold on materially and metaphorically to the places and the people that give us meaning.
Mac often gives her back to the camera, as if Jackson is asking to see what her protagonist sees, what’s in front of her, whether a house on fire or life-altering death. In turn, Jackson deploys close ups of faces only sporadically and with intent. One such case is during a wedding sequence that begins with the visages of Black elders in a church, their presence a physical manifestation of the past and the present coexisting under the same roof.
To execute what is undoubtedly one of the best debuts of the year, Jackson reunited with cinematographer Jomo Fray, who shot her short film “Nettles,” also an exploration of womanhood as it relates to nature. The vividly lyrical frames the two conjure up invoke the divine earthiness of Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” or the way Chloé Zhao mines melancholy from vast landscapes.
Motherhood in “All Dirt Roads” is observed both from Mac’s point of view as a daughter and later a reluctant mother, as well as in the maternal sensibilities of sister Josie (Moses Ingram). But on an even more fundamental level, Jackson deals with motherhood as a concept that expands to the location that has nurtured us, where our ancestors are buried, where all our suffering and joys occurred. We are children first to that mother that holds our roots.
Beneath the soaring score by Sasha Gordon and Victor Magro, a late passage sees Mac telling Lily, her daughter, about the cycle of water, which involves neither creation nor destruction but only transformation. The rain that brought her tragedy could just as well be the same that soothed her when giving birth in a bathtub, the tears she shed after a painful goodbye, the drops of rain that carry the fish to the ocean, and even the release of her urine on growing crops.
That cyclical condition applies to our gloriously insignificant existences, which are nonetheless part of something great. If we can agree that we, humans, also belong to the earth, then one day we will go back to it. The remnants of our bodies don’t ever disappear; they rejoin the dirt under the trees, in our roads, thus returning to us one way or another, as the soil that nurtures our food or the sediment in the river. Jackson’s film speaks of the material spiritually, of the promise of immortality not through religion but through the perfect power of nature.
Jackson is the epitome of a filmmaker whose gaze truly makes everything seem previously unseen. By walking alongside her characters, indeed the salt of the earth, we experience what was always there with brand new wisdom. Through her magnificently understated meditations on life in all its humble greatness she makes of “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt,” a monumental work of elemental soulfulness and ravishing poetry.
“All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” will be released later in 2023 by A24.