Following the success of 2022’s “Aftersun,” “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” marks the second Barry Jenkins produced project from a first-time filmmaker. This time, director Raven Jackson steps up, and whilst perhaps narratively the film suffers, she proves herself an undeniable talent behind the camera, delivering a maturely crafted visual spectacle filled to the brim with thought-provoking ideas.

“All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” follows the story of a black woman from the Mississippi, Mack, and charts an expansive, sprawling tale of her life. Whilst this may sound too vague a premise to work in any meaningful capacity, the film is blessed with a runtime of only 92 minutes, necessitating Jackson to arrive at the core ideas of the piece quickly. The film’s pace is leisurely, to say the least, yet every scene feels integral to the overall thematic intentions she wanted to explore. Perhaps too many ideas are thrown at the audience, and it’s difficult to pin down what Jackson is trying to say, yet not a single moment is wasted in terms of developing them. The slow, meandering nature of the narrative is, therefore, earned.

Despite this, juggling both the short runtime and the all-encompassing story of a woman’s entire life is where the fundamental problem with the film lies. The narrative is far too unfocused to become absorbed in. Every element feels meaningful and cohesive on a thematic level, yet fails to develop a clear narrative throughline for the audience to follow. Additionally, the choice to structure the film in a non-linear fashion does the opposite of elevating this confusion and instead is detrimental to characterization.

All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt (2023) Movie Review
A still from All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt (2023)

Mack is portrayed by three different actresses throughout. Kaylee Nicole Johnson plays the youngest Mack, Zainab Jah plays the oldest, and Charleen McClure does the bulk of the heavy lifting as the adult version of the character. These performances are solid in their own right, but they lack cohesion. Without being told, I find it hard to believe these iterations are all the same person. This is primarily due to the overambitious story.

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Finding our protagonist at these three very different points in her life, it makes sense to use flashes of memory to explore Mack’s grief, her attachment to Mississippi, and how she has been shaped by the environment around her from childhood to adulthood. However, it is impossible to feel anything, given how contrasted every iteration of the character is and how diverse the challenges she faces are at each age. It is hard to find emotional resonance with such disparate ideas being explored simultaneously.

Somewhat counterintuitively, given the amount of ground covered, “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” is a little repetitive in its presentation. Every drop of meaning is squeezed out of the metaphors Jackson develops, yet perhaps she didn’t need to go quite as far in doing so. It is difficult to shake the feeling that conveying the same ideas with a more accessible narrative presentation would have aided the emotional resonance. Instead, the detail with which Jackson constructs her ideas is a barrier. It certainly allows for them to be clearly and powerfully vocalized, but they don’t wash over you in quite the intended manner, as the intricacy becomes tiresome.

It may be hard to become fully immersed in the journeys of the characters occupying the world, but it is not hard to find yourself transported into the world itself. Jomo Fray’s expert handling of the cinematography craft is undeniable, composing such intimate moments through an impeccable use of close-ups. These close-ups illustrate a very sensory experience vital to fleshing out this Southern American setting. You can almost smell, taste, and touch the environment, and if better characterization was implemented in regard to our protagonist, the film would be utterly transformative.

“All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” is an incredibly difficult film to write about, given its abstract nature. At times, the floaty vignette-style storytelling works in its favor, as coupled with expert cinematography, the film enchants you with its fantastic world-building. On the other hand, these same narrative elements do little to engage you in the overall experience without a clear throughline or characters to guide you. From moment to moment, you are captivated, but surprisingly, noting the depth of the ideas explored, you are left little to actually resonate within the film as a complete package. Ambitious but frustrating, assured yet misguided, “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” is a film I would only recommend seeing when Raven Jackson’s inevitably illustrious career really takes off to understand where this exciting new voice started.

★★★

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All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt (2023) Movie Links: IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes, Wikipedia, Letterboxd
The Cast of All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt (2023) Movie: Charleen McClure, Moses Ingram, Reginald Helms Jr., Zainab Jah, Sheila Atim, Chris Chalk
All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt (2023) Movie Genre: Drama, Runtime: 1h 32m
Where to watch All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt

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