The opening of Raven Jackson’s debut feature, “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt,” announces the arrival of a filmmaker grounded in the lyrical beauty of her characters and the loamy grace of the place they so deeply inhabit. In this case, rural Mississippi.
Mack (Kaylee Nicole Johnson), our protagonist, strokes a fish’s opalescent scales. Frogs call and cicadae whir. Mack’s father (Chris Chalk) guides her fishing as her sister, Josie (Jayah Henry), watches doubtful. This scene offers the first close-up of hands. There will be many more: hands grasping river silt, long fingers against the weave of a blanket swaddling a newborn, hands clasped in youthful want.
While several performers portray Mack at different stages of her life, Charleen McClure depicts her as an observant teenager and as a pensive woman. The film sidesteps being a coming-of-age tale, instead looping from Mack’s past to her present, again and again, because that’s how memory unfolds.
So, the film isn’t chiefly about what happens, however understatedly: the death of a young mother (the mesmerizing Sheila Atim), the tentativeness of first love, the relinquishment of a child. It is about the where of these events and how they really feel.
The movie is steeped in the sensual (like a Toni Morrison novel or a Mary Oliver poem). Exquisite use of close-ups, fluid editing and a deeply observant sound design renders Mack’s story tactile but also poetic, making plain that the salt here is the stuff of tears, the stuff of sorrows and of joys.
All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt
Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 32 minutes. In theaters.