A loving story that takes us through the lush liminality of a single life, it changes you just as it does the characters we come to know and care for.
Produced by fellow filmmaker Barry Jenkins and getting a release through A24 just like last year’s incredible Aftersun, which would make for a great double feature with this, Jackson’s vision is one that feels so alive in how it leaves you unable to look away for fear of missing any individual moment. Operating with its own cinematic grammar and an interest in the way we reach out to each other across time, it is a mesmerizing work of cinematic remembering that holds a transfixing power in every single breathtaking aspect of its precise presentation.
From its all-encompassing sound to the beauty of its visuals and the patience in its pacing, it is like being taken back through a dream that feels as real as anything you will have ever gone through in your own life. Less concerned with the typical conventions of plot as it is with the emotions we feel as we go through life, it hones in on the rich details that stand out in the mind. The mind in question is that of Mack, a Black woman living in Mississippi who we observe through small glimpses in time as she grows and changes over the course of decades. Both nonlinear and ethereal in the striking way it is edited together, it is the type of experience that has the power to reshape your psyche just as it does that of the characters.
Beginning in the 1970s with Kaylee Nicole Johnson playing Mack in childhood, we are immersed in her initially peaceful world which is overflowing with the sublime sounds of animals and the recurrent rain that becomes a central motif in the story. As we trace her life forward and back in time, the quiet parts of her life feel kinetic in the moments of kindness just as they do in the ones of destruction. Just as we observe a roaring fire that completely consumes a house in frightening detail, we are left in awe at the connections that are formed between characters trying to hold together through all the pain life rains down upon them.
In particular, Jackson is most interested in bodies. We see this in the way she will frequently linger on her hands, be it of two lovers in an extended embrace as they say goodbye one last time or those of two sisters passing a newborn. Often light on dialogue but never lacking in emotion, there is nothing that feels out of place as everything is important to the tapestry being woven together piece by piece. We don’t always understand the full meaning of these scenes at the moment in which they are happening, but they prove to be deceptively devastating as we recall them later in other scenes that recontextualize what was playing out.
For much of the film, director of photography Jomo Fray’s meticulous camerawork relies on motion as it accompanies the characters through the joy of a party or the mourning of a funeral. Cuts between these two events are often marked by sound, like when Mack’s mother is putting on lipstick while she watches on in childlike wonder. Said matriarch is played by Sheila Atim, who was most recently in last year’s wonderful The Woman King, and the few scenes we get with her all draw us in deep into every solitary corner of this vibrant world.
Be it when she is dancing or holding her young child, Atim fully embodies what we don’t know are fleeting moments in time with an understated yet no less arresting performance. The same can be said of Charleen McClure, who plays Mack in her older years, and Moses Ingram as her sister Josie. They get one standout scene together that contains the most dialogue of any in the entire film, a choice that pays off immensely as we are enraptured by every word and how it informs everything else that is woven throughout the story. The mirth the two share and the way it becomes intermixed with melancholy feels so thoroughly lived in that it is as if we ourselves are going through remembering this bountiful memory right along with Mack.
Similarly, the magnificent music by Sasha Gordon and Victor Magro is used lightly as the soundscape created by Miguel “Maiki” Calvo is also able to completely pull you in. It is a film that is all about subtlety where every new element that connects feels like drinking a glass of water after only having small droplets. You then become invigorated by the liquid coursing through you. This is itself something that characters will remark on in discussing what water can become. When Mack first learns of this, she doesn’t fully understand. It is only with the wisdom of age that she is able to communicate this to the next generation. It is a metaphor poetically tied up in the film’s visual focus as we observe characters going through transformative moments in bodies of water that hold us in an almost religious reverence.
Whether in a bathtub or a lake, just letting it all wash over you as it does the characters makes for an experience both poetic and powerful. It is one of those films which changes you and ensures that the person you were before you saw it is not the one who emerges on the other side. When all the echoes which Jackson delicately explores come into harmony, All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt strikes a resonant chord that will be heard for time eternal.
All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt debuted at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.