Filmmaker Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) has put his name behind several burgeoning talents as a producer on their projects, and the latest is Raven Jackson, whose debut All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt premiered as a part of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at Sundance. While Jackson’s film may be visually stunning, its narratively spare nature is likely to make it unapproachable for a majority of audiences.
The movie follows a woman and her family growing up in the American South as she drifts through life experiencing the world in unique ways. The narrative in All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt is extremely sparse — nearly nonexistent, even — but the imagery created by Jackson is intriguing in a way that it sometimes (but not always) speaks for itself.
There are a lot of motifs that can be found in the film like intimacy, love, longing, and grief, but they don’t congeal into a holistic experience that feels entirely satisfying. For lack of a better word, it’s a bit pretentious. While it’s nice to see a movie so unabashedly comfortable in its own skin that it refuses to tell the audience anything, it’s also not entirely effective at radiating the warmth that it so desperately wants to achieve.
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Since the film is largely lacking in narrative structure, the viewer’s appreciation of it will be heavily dependent on how much they buy into the tone and atmosphere that Jackson has created. There are some scenes that deal out some absolutely phenomenal vibes — including a dancing scene early in the runtime — but there are also long stretches of quietness that become overwhelming at times.
Still, even if Jackson doesn’t consistently command the viewer’s attention, she clearly has an extraordinary grasp of how to construct powerful imagery. There’s a good amount of repetition in the symbolism, such as several shots of lingering embraces, but Jackson directs the hell out of these scenes and knows how to get the most emotion out of every little touch and embrace.
The structure does come at the expense of character development. Jackson attempts to connect the audience with the characters through these nonverbal interactions, and while she succeeds in appealing to our core-level human emotions, she needed to have expanded beyond that for the movie to fulfill its potential resonance.
Still, despite the fact that the character development isn’t particularly pronounced, there are some individual scenes in which the actors are given monologues in which they can shine. Moses Ingram (Obi-Wan Kenobi) gets the most to do — and arguably does the best in communicating emotion through her body language — and Sheila Atim (The Underground Railroad) steals the scene more than once.
All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt is a confident debut cementing Raven Jackson as an exciting new talent to keep an eye on, but it’s not quite compelling enough to be effective as a strong film in its own right. In a way, it almost feels like a student thesis film — albeit a well-crafted one at that.
All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt is playing at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, which runs January 19-29 in-person in Park City, UT and January 24-29 online.
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