The U.S. Dramatic Competition portion of this year’s Sundance program has been considered a little thin, and people seem uncertain on what’s going to win the Grand Jury prize in what feels like a wide-open race. I haven’t seen all of the films in the program, but I think Raven Jackson’s “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” would be an inspired choice. It’s a film that feels like nothing else here, a movie more interested in sound and imagery than traditional narrative or dialogue. It’s a film that transports with its detail, a drama that sometimes plays like memory in the way it jumbles chronology or focuses on the seemingly mundane, but it’s been made with such obvious love for its setting and the people who live in it that it becomes mesmerizing. It’s a poetic film that recreates how a touch or a sound can mean more than a phrase, and it has a remarkable balance between the specific and the lyrical. Jackson smartly refuses to give in to the latter, straddling that line between something that feels like a dream with very grounded, tactile filmmaking. It’s a haunting movie I suspect people will be talking about all year.
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.
By now, we should all expect greatness from Lily Gladstone (“Certain Women”), who delivers yet again as Jax, a hustler who is introduced stealing from a fisherman with her niece Roki (the fantastic Isabel Deroy-Olson). Jax is just trying to make ends meet and provide for her loved one as they search for Roki’s missing mother. As the 13-year-old prepares for a mother-daughter show at a powwow, Jax pushes the authorities and her father (Shea Whigham) to do something to find her sister. As the system continues to fail them, Jax and Roki are forced to flee and seek some sort of justice on their own.
Gladstone and Deroy-Olson have a natural screen presence that I wish Tremblay trusted a bit more. “Fancy Dance” is actually at its best when they’re allowed to ignore the over-plotting of this script. Gladstone conveys an increasing anxiety over the likelihood that she will never find her sister and could possibly lose her niece in the process. Meanwhile, Deroy-Olson is finely tuned into that age between childhood and adulthood wherein she senses that her entire life is about to change, but she just wants to be a daughter at least one more time. These are really strong performances, but I wanted them to breathe more than the script allows in its final scenes, even if where the film ultimately lands is a sober reminder of how Indigenous communities come together to not only grieve loss but celebrate life.
They’re very tonally different but there’s a truthful coming-of-age narrative at the core of Laurel Parmet’s “The Starling Girl” too. Sadly, this one just feels too familiar and thin, despite strong work from its ensemble, especially a young actress who has already impressed in projects like “Sharp Objects”. It just feels like we’ve seen this film so many times before and it doesn’t have the same sense of place as the other two comp titles in this dispatch. It’s so thin that it slips through your fingers, just like the protagonist who has been so let down by the people around her.
Eliza Scanlen plays 17-year-old Jem Starling, a member of an extremely fundamentalist Christian community that includes her parents played by Jimmi Simpson and Wrenn Schmidt. It’s a delicate, complicated age in a community like this one, a setting wherein Jem is castigated for wearing a bra that can be seen through her outfit at a dance show. Any sign of sexuality or adulthood or feelings really is immediately trampled, which is what makes youth pastor Owen (Lewis Pullman) so appealing to Jem. He seems to be the only one who actually lets Jem feel anything, and he takes advantage of that trust she places in him by starting a sexual relationship with her.
Scanlen never strikes a false note in “The Starling Girl,” but the same can’t be said for the elements around her. Owen feels underwritten to the point of being merely a plot device, and the same can really be said for Jem’s parents, played by performers who are always up for more challenging, nuanced material. I wanted to simply believe the world around Jem as much as I did that around the characters in “All Dirt Roads” and even “Fancy Dance,” and I always felt like I was watching a movie instead of inhabiting a world with a character. Scanlen shines, but everything around her is dull.