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Review: A Thousand and One

March 31, 2023

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Writer-director A.V. Rockwell’s debut feature A Thousand and One, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in January, is a mother-son drama defined by its complex lead character, with the filmmaker eschewing easy emotion for something far thornier.

The film, which begins in the 1990s, centres around Inez (Teyana Taylor), a young woman in New York who is in and out of the city’s shelter system, and has recently been released from prison when she decides to kidnap her six-year-old son Terry, to rescue him from growing up in foster care.

Named for the number on the door of their rundown apartment in Harlem, A Thousand and One is a stripped down drama that unfolds around the relationship between Inez and Terry (whose name gets changed to Darryl) at key points in his life; when he is six (played by Aaron Kingsley Adetola), thirteen (played by Aven Courtney), and then seventeen (played by Josiah Cross).

The first part of Rockwell’s film focuses on Inez trying to secure housing and rebuild a life with her young son, while the second part shifts to focus on Terry as an older teen, who is starting to think about trying to make his own way in the world. This is where the story reveals itself to be far more complicated and thus more interesting, as Rockwell raises fascinating and emotionally challenging questions about how Inez’s drastic choices as a mother continue to impact her son years down the line.

The film, which unfolds from the mid-1990s to the post-9/11 mid-2000s, is set against the backdrop of a rapidly evolving New York City, as mayors change and the city continues to gentrify around them. This provides a larger context for the film’s ground-level portrait of the bond between a mother and son who are stuck trying to navigate the city’s neglectful social systems. The often handheld camerawork by cinematographer Eric K. Yue captures the sights and sounds of Harlem as well as the more intimate character moments, as Gary Gunn’s jazz score adds appropriate accompaniment.

A few elements of the screenplay do feel a little underdeveloped as the film keeps jumping ahead in time, giving the drama an episodic feel in places. But the film is grounded by Taylor’s nuanced performance, with Cross as 17-year-old Terry ultimately doing a lot of the emotional heavy lifting for that character in a true standout role. William Catlett also delivers tender supporting work as Lucky, the new man in Terry’s life. These strong performances allow for a number of stirring moments throughout the film.

(L to R) Teyana Taylor stars as “Inez de la Paz” and Aaron Kingsley Adetola stars as six year old “Terry” in writer/director A.V. Rockwell’s A THOUSAND AND ONE, released by Focus Features. Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features

A Thousand and One opens exclusively in theatres on March 31st.

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