The struggles of a young woman of color to rebuild her life after a prison stint are conveyed with deep feeling A Thousand and One, the affecting first feature from AV Rockwell, who sharpened her skills on acclaimed short films and commercials. Led by a performance from Teyana Taylor of youthful swagger that evolves through a series of challenges into hard-won self-possession, the Focus Features release is a tender, often painful portrait of the fractious but loving bond between a mother and son, both spat out of the foster care system. It’s also a rich evocation of New York City in the throes of accelerated gentrification and discriminatory policing.
The gritty textures, sizzling colors and vibrant street life of Harlem, in particular, make that historic neighborhood as much a protagonist as Taylor’s Inez De La Paz, a hair stylist first encountered in 1993 while she’s serving time at Rikers. A year later, she’s living in a Brooklyn homeless shelter and struggling to get work but determined to stay out of trouble.
A Thousand and One
The Bottom Line
Well-acted and compelling.
When Inez first re-encounters her 6-year-old son Terry (Aaron Kingsley Adetola), he’s reluctant to talk to her, still distrustful after she abandoned him on the street. But the boy lands in hospital after an accident in his foster home and she starts visiting, getting past his petulance with a Power Ranger toy. Inez tells him she’s due to be moved to a new shelter but gives him her beeper number and vows to find him. “Why do you keep leaving me?” he asks, triggering her impulsive decision to whisk him away to Harlem.
Rockwell tracks their lives together over 15 years, with Terry played at 13 by Aven Courtney and at 17 by Josiah Cross, the seamless transitions between the three actors recalling the similar progression in Moonlight.
While news reports about the boy’s abduction in Brooklyn keep Inez on edge at first, she and Terry start to relax into a new life together once she finds work and an affordable apartment. She also gets a fake ID for Terry, now going by Darrell, enabling him to attend school. He’s a bright student, which opens up promising possibilities once he approaches college age. But it also means additional paperwork is required, threatening to expose their shared secret and pull them apart again.
Rockwell’s empathetic gaze keeps us rooting for both Inez and Terry as his teenage growing pains create friction between them. She resumes a rocky romance with Lucky (Will Catlett) following his release from prison. He provides a father figure for Terry but also makes him blame Inez unfairly when fights cause him to disappear for weeks at a time.
All three of the actors playing Terry capture the hurt of a kid who grew accustomed to disappointment at a young age and remains constantly on the alert for signs that he’ll be set adrift again. Inez seems painfully aware of that tension in her son. Both of them are damaged people, as is Lucky, which threads a vein of melancholy even through scenes in which the fragile family unit finds moments of harmony.
Taylor is especially good at showing how the strain of holding them together — giving more than she gets back from either Lucky or Terry — eats away at her. A scene where she’s simultaneously laughing and sobbing while eating a cup of instant noodles and watching insane reality TV pierces the heart.
There’s a meandering quality to it A Thousand and One that at times makes it feel slightly underpowered and overlong. But the drama is fully inhabited and its relationships drawn with love and compassion for the characters’ failings as much as their hopes, qualities enhanced by Gary Gunn’s mellow score.
What makes the canvas much more expansive than the central focus of home and family is the acute observation of changes to the fabric of life in New York City over Giuliani’s time as mayor and into the Bloomberg years. The crackdown on street crime leads to racial profiling and stop-and-frisk policies that target people of color, meaning Terry gets slammed against a wall when he’s simply walking home from school. And the rampant development favors property owners while disenfranchising the long-time residents of entire neighborhoods.
That process — with callous new landlords taking over maintenance responsibilities and forcing tenants out by making homes basically unlivable — is shown in all its pitiless indifference. It dumps one more major crisis onto Inez’s shoulders while she’s dealing with a saddening loss and facing the dilemma of what to do about Terry’s future. Rockwell then radically alters the perspective with a closing-act reveal that shows Inez’s sacrifices in a new light.
Shot by DP Eric K. Yue with a sharp eye for the evolution of the city and its toll on marginalized communities, the film benefits enormously from the authenticity of its locations and the director’s sensitivity to the casualties of societal change. It’s a quiet drama despite its characters’ many volatile arguments. Most of all, it’s a moving character portrait of a complicated woman who makes good and bad decisions but is motivated solely by the desire to create a better life for herself and the people she loves.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (US Dramatic Competition)
Distribution: Focus Features
Production companies: Sight Unseen, Hillman Grad, MakeReady
Cast: Teyana Taylor, Josiah Cross, Will Catlett, Aaron Kingsley Adetola, Aven Courtney, Terry Victoria Abney, Delissa Reynolds, Amelia Workman, Mark Gessner, John Maria Gutierrez, Adriane Lenox
Director-screenwriter: AV Rockwell
Producers: Eddie Vaisman, Julia Lebedev, Lena Waithe, Rishi Rajani, Brad Weston
Executive producers: Oren Moverman, Rachel Jacobs, Leonid Lebedev, AV Rockwell, Jamin O’Brien
Director of photography: Eric K. Yue
Production designer: Sharon Lomofsky
Costume designer: Melissa Vargas
Music: Gary Gunn
Editor: Sabine Hoffman, Kristen Sprague
Casting: Avy Kaufman
1 hour 54 minutes
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