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‘A Thousand and One’ Review: Teyana Taylor Powerfully Embodies One Woman’s Struggle to Keep Home and Family Together

A young woman of color’s struggle to rebuild her life after a prison sentence is conveyed with deep feeling A thousand and one, AV Rockwell’s gripping first feature film, who honed her skills in critically acclaimed shorts and commercials. Led by a Teyana Taylor performance from youthful swagger evolving through a series of challenges to hard-won self-control, the Focus Features release is a tender, often painful portrait of the unruly yet loving bond between a mother and son, both spat on. from the foster care system. It’s also a rich evocation of New York City in the throes of accelerated gentrification and discriminatory policing.

Harlem’s gritty textures, vibrant colors, and vibrant street life in particular make that historic neighborhood as much of a protagonist as Taylor’s Inez De La Paz, a hairstylist she first met in 1993 while at Rikers for a while. A year later, she lives in a homeless shelter in Brooklyn and struggles to find work, but is determined to stay out of trouble.

A thousand and one

It comes down to

Well acted and compelling.

Event venue: Sundance Film Festival (American Dramatic Competition)
Distribution: Focus functions
Form: 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

1 hour 54 minutes

When Inez first meets her 6-year-old son Terry (Aaron Kingsley Adetola) again, he is hesitant to talk to her, still suspicious after she left him on the street. But the boy ends up in the hospital after an accident at his foster home and she starts visiting, overcoming his irritability with a Power Ranger toy. Inez tells him she needs to be moved to a new shelter, but gives him her beeper number and promises to find him. “Why do you keep leaving me?” he asks, sparking her impulsive decision to take him to Harlem.

Rockwell follows their lives together over 15 years, with Terry played at age 13 by Aven Courtney and at age 17 by Josiah Cross. The seamless transitions between the three actors recall the similar progression in Moonlight.

While news reports of the boy’s kidnapping in Brooklyn initially keep Inez tense, she and Terry begin to relax into a new life together once she finds work and an affordable apartment. She also gets a fake ID for Terry, now named Darrell, which allows him to attend school. He is a bright student, which opens up promising opportunities once he approaches college age. But it also means additional paperwork is required, which threatens to expose their shared secret and break them up again.

Rockwell’s empathetic gaze keeps us supportive of both Inez and Terry as his teenage growing pains cause friction between them. She resumes a rocky romance with Lucky (Will Catlett) after his release from prison. He provides a father figure to Terry, but also blames him unfairly on Inez when fighting causes him to disappear for weeks.

All three actors who play Terry capture the pain of a child who grew accustomed to disappointments at a young age and is constantly on the lookout for signs that he’s going to be adrift again. Inez seems painfully aware of that tension in her son. Both are damaged people, just like Lucky, which cuts a vein of melancholy even through scenes where the fragile family finds moments of harmony.

Taylor is especially good at showing how the thrill of keeping them together – giving more than she gets back from Lucky or Terry – gnaws at her. A scene where she laughs and sobs at the same time while eating a cup of instant noodles and watching pointless reality TV pierces the heart.

There is a meandering quality A thousand and one which makes it feel a bit undersized and too long at times. But the drama is fully lived in, and the relationships are drawn with love and compassion for both the characters’ shortcomings and their hopes, qualities enhanced by Gary Gunn’s mellow score.

What extends the canvas far beyond the central focus of home and family is the acute observation of changes in the fabric of life in New York City during Giuliani’s time as mayor and in the Bloomberg years. The crackdown on street crime leads to racial profiling and body search policies targeting people of color, meaning Terry is slammed against a wall just walking home from school. And the rampant development benefits property owners while disenfranchising the longtime residents of entire neighborhoods.

That process — with callous new landlords taking over maintenance responsibilities and coercing tenants by rendering houses essentially unlivable — is shown in all its relentless indifference. It throws another major crisis on Inez’s shoulders as she deals with a sad loss and faces the dilemma of what to do with Terry’s future. Rockwell then radically changes the perspective with a final act reveal that shows Inez’s sacrifices in a new light.

The film was shot by DP Eric K. Yue with a keen eye for the evolution of the city and its toll on marginalized communities. The film benefits greatly from the authenticity of the locations and the director’s sensitivity to the victims of social change. It is a quiet drama despite the characters’ many volatile arguments. Above all, it is 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.

Full credits

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (American Dramatic Competition)
Distribution: Focus functions
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, Kristan Sprague
Casting: Avy Kaufman

1 hour 54 minutes

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