Jackson moves through the life of a young woman in the rural South at different phases of her life, allowing for a sort of poetic logic from one sequence to the next. She sets the tone with a lengthy scene of two sisters fishing with their father, the camera settling on hands far more than faces—a hand holding a rod, touching a fish, pushing into the riverbed, etc. She will return over and over again to hands, using them to highlight the connections between these people and the natural world around them. Hands dig in the ground. Hands are tentatively held on a walk. Hands pat a back during a hug. She often frames people from behind, showing the back of their heads as if we’re walking with them down a dirt road. It’s a sharp, confident visual language that connects these people to the world around them and each other through something that feels both incredibly specific to the moment and easily relatable.
And then there’s Jackson’s sound design, dominated by the natural world and with a sparse use of score. No, the “music” for this movie comes from the cicadas or the rain pouring down on a rooftop. Again, it becomes more memory than reality or even dream. Most of us can remember days in the natural world when we were young. And you can almost smell the air in this film, a truly stunning accomplishment at a festival where that kind of ambitious tonal filmmaking is rare.
In the end, Jackson’s camera becomes almost like a character in “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt.” It moves through this world and its characters, capturing moments of heartbreak and moments of mundane everyday existence, alternating between them like patches on a quilt. It’s a film that I’ve thought about a great deal just in the last 24 hours since seeing it, even as I saw other films I admired. There’s something about this one that lingers. I imagine it will all year.
The other two U.S. Dramatic Competition films in this program are more standard Sundance fare, although they both have admirable degrees of regional specificity as well. The superior of the pair is Erica Tremblay’s “Fancy Dance,” a film with genuinely grounded performances that sadly falls apart a bit in a remarkably contrived final act. For a film that’s about tough questions and the tragic dynamic that faces young women in Indigenous communities, it ties itself up with a succession of scenes that are just too neat and tidy, but that doesn’t reflect on the pair of performances that never lose their rhythm.