A Thousand and One

A year after being released from Riker’s Island and unable to return to her old salon job, Inez (Teyana Taylor, "Coming 2 America") is hustling her hairdressing services on the street when she spies her 6 year-old son Terry (Aaron Kingsley Adetola), now in foster care.  He’ll barely look at her, but she persists and when he lands in the hospital after falling out a window, Inez kidnaps him and moves back to Harlem to build a family and a life at “A Thousand and One.”

Laura's Review: A-

Writer/director A.V. Rockwell’s assured feature debut, winner of the 2023 Sundance Grand Jury prize, is not only an emotionally moving story of a mother struggling to raise her child but one which illustrates how a gentrifying New York City is making that struggle increasingly impossible as neighborhoods and the cultures embedded within them are devastated by greed.  Rockwell divides her film into three chapters, each beginning with mayoral audio outlining her themes over drone shots of the changing landscape, yet she also finds room within the personal to surprise us, her final revelation a game changing bombshell.

Inez, a complicated mix of in-your-face aggression and wells of compassion, quickly burns bridges with the one friend, Kim (Terri Abney), willing to take her and her son in by shoving Kim’s disapproving mother (Delissa Reynolds).  Out on the street again, she replies to an ad and sets up household in a small apartment within an old Harlem brownstone owned by Miss Annie (Adriane Lenox), who also refers her to a job cleaning a nursing home in Queens.  We observe Terry, forbidden to leave the apartment as news of his Brooklyn abduction emanates from the TV, bored to tears on his own, but Inez eventually gets him placed within school by securing illegal papers.  His questions about his dad are brushed aside with promises of securing a new one.  Then he’s informed that Lucky (William Catlett, "The Devil You Know"), who we’d heard Inez tell Kim was still locked up, is moving in.  Little Terry isn’t impressed.

Inez will marry Lucky, who grows closer to Terry over the years (he will be played by Aven Courtney at 13, the actor an unconvincing physical match to the other two, then Josiah Cross at 17, looking more like the character’s 6 year-old self), but will face bumps along the way, the most serious of which she will astonish her son by acknowledging with empathetic grace during a time of grief.  Terry will try to follow in Lucky’s footsteps by wooing café waitress Simone (Azza El at 14, Alicia at 17), but it goes nowhere.  And after surviving Giuliani’s racist PD, Bloomberg will usher in a real estate development boom, Jerry (Mark Gessner), their building’s new owner, arriving with a smile then attempting to force them out just as Terry’s encouraging teacher, Miss Tucker (Amelia Workman), feels compelled to help with devastating effect. 

Rockwell has stated that despite her love for New York, her film is no love letter to the city, instead more of a break-up and indeed by the end of it, New York City has erased her characters.  Her production charts the changing city, just as costumer designer Melissa Vargas notes the evolution of Inez from a brash, sexy young woman to a far less flashy, somewhat worn down one.  Teyana Taylor anchors the film with her portrait of a woman ever willing to fight, one who even briefly attains everything she’d hoped for.  The camera loves her, but the actress eschews vanity for reality, keeping us on Inez’s side even in her lesser moments.  Also strong is Catlett, his Lucky far more complex than what we expect from Inez’s initial description.  Composer Gary Gunn’s outstanding, modern jazz score evokes movies past while standing firmly within the world Rockwell has created.  “A Thousand and One” marks the emergence of a voice worth listening to.

Focus Features releases "A Thousand and One" in theaters on 3/31/23.