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Review | ‘All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt’: A dreamlike collage of memories

(3 stars)

“All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt,” the quietly ambitious debut of writer-director Raven Jackson, is not a conventional narrative: Its rhythms and gestures suggest looking toward the likes of Terrence Malick, William Faulkner and Maya Angelou for their elliptical meanings. Less a story than an impressionistic portrait of a girl coming of age in rural Mississippi, this deliberately paced meditation on family, first love, nature and beauty could fairly be described as “slow cinema.” But there are rewards to be had by viewers who welcome the chance to enter into a different kind of consciousness, not just to immerse themselves in the universe Jackson creates, but to unlock worlds of their own.

Opening to a symphony of crickets and bird chirps, “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” begins when its main character, Mackenzie, is being taught to fish by her father; Jackson films their hands in extreme close-up, intently observing the line growing taut with each click of the reel. Mack, as her family calls her, is less interested in the mechanics of fishing than in the mystery of life and death: When she finally catches a fish, she strokes it while the creature takes its final breaths.

All of this unfolds with steady, observational patience, as do ensuing episodes of Mack’s life that are captured in often dialogue-free tableaux: a party where she observes her parents (Sheila Atim and Chris Chalk) dancing languidly to Gladys Knight; a thunderstorm as her beloved mother bathes her in a bathtub; learning how to kiss; falling in love. “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” doesn’t obey straight lines, but bursts out of Jackson’s imagination like a collage of fragments, sense memories, chronologically random but pivotal encounters, and moments of supreme grief and joy.

Mack, played by Kaylee Nicole Johnson as a child, as well as Charleen McClure, Mylee Shannon and Zainab Jah at other ages, emerges as a watchful child who grows into a similarly careful, self-aware young woman. One of the joys of “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” lies in the vicarious pleasure of taking in her environment, whether the neat plaits she and her sister Josie (Jayah Henry) wear their hair in, the sound of rain on a river or the gentle banter over a kitchen table while cleaning fish. Jackson returns to certain visual motifs that border on cliché — there are enough shots of hands running through water to fill a syllabus on literary symbolism — but her heightened perception casts its own undeniable spell. “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” doesn’t just announce a promising new talent in Jackson. It serves as a shimmering, dreamlike reminder that movies are as good for poetry as for prose.

PG. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains mature thematic elements and brief sensuality. 93 minutes.

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