Nature provides much of the soundtrack to “ All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt,” a poised and occasionally transcendent debut from writer-director Raven Jackson.
The sounds of crickets and birds, flowing water and the wind in the long summer grass are only sporadically punctured by a song at a party, or a brief moment of a swelling score. These are the kind of details that make you feel immediately rooted in a place. It’s not just the nature setting on a sleep app either, or, if it is, sound supervisor Miguel Calvo ensure that it doesn’t feel like that. It’s thoughtful and precise and also lets you more fully enjoy the moments where those human-made sounds take over.
This might be a lot of talk about sound design to start, but it’s also a bit of a primer on what to expect from “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt,” which counts “Moonlight” filmmaker Barry Jenkins among its producers. Like sitting in a field for hours without a phone or a book or a companion to chat with, just the world around you, Jackson’s film requires a level of conscious, almost meditative submission. The dialogue is sparse, the narrative is also. It is probably not an accident that some of the first words uttered, minutes in, are “not too quick … slow, take your time.” It applies to the fishing lesson between father and daughter that we’re witnessing, yes, but it works on another level too.
“All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” is a collection of moments in the life of Mack (Charleen McClure as an adult, Kaylee Nicole Johnson as a child), sometimes skipping back and forth in time. There are long stretches where the camera lingers on a hug, or the red painted toes of a mother at a party, the back of our heroine’s head, a fish on a table, a crying infant getting their first bath in a kitchen sink, or two sisters sitting on a porch, in silence, until one breaks into laughter. And there are many, many hands. It’s possible the camera spends more or at least equal time on hands — preparing a fish, digging in the dirt, holding — or not holding — another, swirling muddy water in a pond. Within this tapestry there are glimpses of great loss, of solitude, of new life and of transitions that feel familiar even if they’re not your own.
For as stubbornly minimalist as it is, the imagery is always vibrant, aided by the rich, primary colors of the costumes, and thoughtfully composed shots, whether of a worm wriggling or a classic silhouette looking outside a darkened door. The emotion, too, is surprisingly palpable considering how little we really know about the people we’re watching.
Still, at a certain point, you may find yourself yearning for more — more story, more arc, more information, something to hold onto, to sustain interest or engagement. Sometimes it feels like you’re wandering through a gallery of moving moments that you understand on an intellectual level are connected but maybe don’t add up to a completely satisfying whole — especially at a trim, but standard, feature length.
That it works as well as it does is quite a feat, though. And with “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt,” Jackson has firmly established herself as a filmmaker to watch.
“All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt,” an A24 release in theaters Friday, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association for “thematic content and brief sensuality.” Running time: 97 minutes. Three stars out of four.