The sight, sound and feeling of falling rain are one of the greatest gifts of cinema. But with millions of restless, anxious app scrollers ordering rain on demand, its essential awesomeness has now become a commodity; just another sound effect and sleep aid.
But the real magic of this is the way it speaks to the camera, poets and dreamers. Writer-director Raven Jackson captures many things in her exquisite enigma, “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt,” describing softly howling thunder, a silent rain, a hand skimming the surface of a river.
Jackson’s film tells the story of a woman’s life from childhood to her advanced years, fluidly and outside the narrative order. One memory flows into the next and we don’t always know where we are or when. This is the film’s strategy, not a continuity accident. While she shapes it during editing, as all filmmakers do (editing by Lee Chatametikool), Jackson’s confident touch suggests she knew what she wanted all along: a moving poem about a woman who remembers.
Its subject is Mack, a young girl we see learning to catch a catfish for the first time. Kaylee Nicole Johnson portrays her at this stage of her life; While his father (Chris Chalk) urges him not to rush, Mack’s younger sister Josie (Jayah Henry) keeps a close eye on him. Later, Mack’s mother (Sheila Atim, who performs a miracle in several key scenes) wraps up the lesson by skinning a fish for dinner in the kitchen at home.
“All Dirt Roads Taste Salt” revolves its story around very important events; These include the tragically early death of a mother and the fate of a newborn baby years later. But in sequences featuring adult Mack (played by Charleen McClure) and adult Josie (Moses Ingram), what might be considered dramatic turning points or big revelations turn out to be more subtle signs along the way in Mack’s life. Filming in rural Mississippi and Tennessee with the formidable cinematographer Jomo Fray, director Jackson often works without saying anything. These are beautiful and mysterious people who are acutely aware of their physical world.
This movie is a high-wire act, and I don’t know if Jackson’s approach would work without the central relationship between the adult sisters acting as a compass. But McClure and Ingram are first-rate, as lively as their unspoken understanding (I’m keeping a key element of the story a secret here) as their easy-going banter. One Interview with Cinemafemme.com Along with Chicago critic and programmer Rebecca Martin, the filmmaker acknowledged Mack’s intention to honor her life of “quieter, ordinary moments like learning how to skin a fish and touching my grandmother’s hands.” “I wanted to give those moments equal weight to the bigger moments in this movie.”
The film’s title comes from a poem Jackson wrote, inspired by a conversation he had with his grandmother years ago about eating clay mud. Although evocative, there are times when the poem could use a little more prose to keep signposts and time signatures clearer. But Jackson’s film, with its unusually detailed and soothing soundscapes (frogs, raindrops, heart murmurs) and unfailingly well-acted actors in natural settings, doesn’t attempt to correct the aberrations in Mack’s memory. Memories of where we were float unpredictably inside our heads, and that’s how this movie works.
I think the comparison is ridiculous because he worked directly within the Hollywood studio system, but composer David Raksin once said that no one should listen to film scores the first time because it has a way of confusing people. Too challenging, hard to understand, or something else. For some, this comment will apply to that slippery catfish from the first movie; The hypnotic quality of “All Dirt Roads” may emerge even more convincingly on the second encounter.
The film opens on a single screen this week at the Landmark Century Center Cinema in Chicago. Producer Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight,” “If Beale Street Could Talk”) served as Jackson’s champion on the project, and while there are many influences from Jenkins to Terrence Malick to Toni Morrison, “All Dirt Roads” guides, piece by piece, the way a new director sees and listens to a woman’s life with all the puzzle pieces.
“All Dirt Roads Taste Like Salt” — 3.5 stars (out of 4)
MPA rating: PG (for thematic content and brief sentimentality)
Running time: 1:32
How to watch: Premieres November 10 in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema, 2828 N. Clark St.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.