THE STORY – Unapologetic and free-spirited Inez kidnaps her 6-year-old son, Terry, from the foster care system. They set out to reclaim their sense of home, identity, and stability in a rapidly changing New York City.
THE CAST – Teyana Taylor, Will Catlett, Josiah Cross, Aven Courtney & Aaron Kingsley Adetola
THE TEAM – A.V. Rockwell (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 116 Minutes
Coming out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, “A Thousand and One” has much to live up to. Not only is it the feature film directorial debut of writer-director A.V. Rockwell (that quickly received raves upon raves from countless critics), but it’s also this year’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner, following in the footsteps of Best Picture nominees like “Minari” and even a Best Picture winner in the case of 2021’s “CODA.” The good news for Rockwell? Those raves are valid, and she’s turned in a film that’s more than worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as those former awards faves, as “A Thousand and One” is not just an achingly authentic look at one mother and son straining against the system to stay afloat and stay together – and how their unshakable bond shields them from the worst of the world – but also an admirably raw recreation of a rapidly changing New York City that shoved out those who called these streets home and continues to do so to this day.
It’s the mid-1990s, and Inez de la Paz (a towering Teyana Taylor who thrills in her first turn as a leading lady) has just been released from prison and is back to spending her time moving from shelter to shelter and otherwise living her life unapologetically, on her own terms. However, when trying to reconnect with her 6-year-old son Terry – who is currently in foster care with guardians who aren’t watching out for his well-being – Inez makes the impassioned (yet impulsive) decision to kidnap Terry and take off so that they can rebuild their life together. She can have a second chance to be the mom he deserves. Over time, Inez introduces Terry to her latest boyfriend, Lucky (William Catlett), who becomes his first real father figure (despite him and Inez being in constant conflict). He starts to show promise in school as the years go on, prompting Inez to hope that he’ll have an even better life outside of all this mess than she could’ve ever imagined. But the two can only run from the past for so long, and soon, the secrets they’ve kept threaten to tear them apart.
From the first frame, the most striking thing about Rockwell’s directorial debut is her painstakingly poignant sense of place. As someone who grew up in Queens, it’s no surprise that she holds strong (and often starkly honest) feelings for New York City and can reimagine the imagery of her childhood. Still, it’s another thing entirely to make us feel these exact emotions as well and feel entirely aligned with her personal perspective, as if these aren’t just her memories but ours as well. “A Thousand and One” is a time machine that doesn’t just take us back to 1990s New York City, but Rockwell’s 1990s New York City. Her melancholic, multifaceted recollections make this movie feel far more specific and nuanced than other “filmmaker reminisces on the people and places who made them” flicks. Rockwell wants us to know New York as she does, and how easy it is to fall for its sights, sounds, and sumptuous scale, and simultaneously, how easy it is to be abandoned by that which you adore too, as politicians who preach prejudice and attack the poor start to take over and push out those who have built this city on their backs.
It makes sense then to tell a story of a Black woman – and a Black mother, in particular – against the backdrop of an increasingly gentrified New York City, as few individuals know the feeling of loving something (or someone) with all your might and never receiving that same love back in return than Black women, the most overlooked and underappreciated of us all, despite all they do and have done. And in the case of Inez de la Paz, Rockwell has made it impossible not to root for her protagonist; no matter what law she’s breaking, who doesn’t want to see a mother and son reunited and subsequently pave forward a path to a better and brighter future together so he can have opportunities she only ever dreamed of? It also helps that Rockwell directs phenomenal performances out of her entire ensemble, beginning with the blisteringly brilliant Teyana Taylor, who has wholly inhabited the character of Inez to exhilarating effect and aligns beautifully with Rockwell’s broader vision (which already veers on docudrama at points due to how unflinchingly candid it is). As Inez, Taylor is everything, always, all the time. In her sadness, there is still strength – there has to be, for Terrys’s sake. In her happiness, there is hate for a system and city that seeks to punish anyone unable to accumulate the wealth to remain.
By the time “A Thousand and One” reaches its resolution, some may find it a bit rushed due to a few last-minute story turns that come as rather sudden shocks. Still, even in these potentially melodramatic moments, Rockwell always roots her work in emotional realism and, above all else, keeps the focus on Inez and Terry. No matter what happens outside the four walls of their home, they will always have one another – near, far, you name it. And that’s why we’re left with an example of how triumphant a mother’s love can be when leaving “A Thousand and One” most of all, and how an increasingly hateful city is no match for a mom on a mission – a mom who will do what it takes to make her son’s life a success. And though Rockwell maintains that Inez and Terry aren’t based on any rare people, she – and Taylor and the actors who play Terry over the years – inject these roles and the film with such feeling.