Writer-director A.V. Rockwell makes a triumphant debut with “A Thousand and One,” an award winner at this year’s Sundance Film Festival that takes hold and never lets go.
Inez (Teyana Taylor) has just been released from the Rikers Island jail when she searches the Brooklyn streets for the little boy she left behind, a quiet, watchful 7-year-old named Terry. He’s been put in foster care but has ended up in the hospital with a head injury. After a tortured moment of indecision, Inez gathers him up and takes him up to Harlem, eluding city authorities and trying to build the family she never had.
A scrapper, fighter, hustler and striver, Inez – portrayed by Taylor in a fierce, career-defining turn – will not back down when it comes to the son she insists on fighting for. “A Thousand and One” is pointedly set in 1990s New York, at the dawn of the stop-and-frisk policies and gentrification efforts that would change the city forever. As Terry grows into a wary but clearly intelligent teenager, his and Inez’s existence grows ever more precarious, even with the arrival of Lucky (William Catlett), the ex-con who will become Inez’s husband and Terry’s ambivalent but committed father. As Harlem changes around them, their modest apartment begins literally to fall apart, a physical manifestation of the apprehension Inez can’t shake when it comes to the people she loves most.
Working with cinematographer Eric K. Yue, Rockwell creates a vibrantly precise portrait of New York in the ‘90s, when boomboxes, beepers, pay phones and street life gave the city a vital, dangerous pulse. Gary Gunn’s alternately delicate and lush musical score lends lyricism to scenes that often burst with barely contained anger and violence. With an attuned sense of tonal balance and atmosphere, Rockwell doesn’t tell the story of an unconventional family so much as plunge viewers into the daily realities of building a life, one mistake and fragile victory at a time.
For the most part, though, she creates a canvas and safe space for some of the most riveting and uncompromising performances of the year. Three actors – Aaron Kingsley Adetola, Aven Courtney and Josiah Cross – play Terry at different ages, each one of them with extraordinary self-possession and sensitivity. Catlett plays Lucky with menace at first – a misdirect that is just as much about the audience’s assumptions as it is his own character’s evolution. Terri Abney, Adriane Lenox and Alicia Pilgrim all deliver impressive supporting roles as women who come into Inez and Terry’s life, Pilgrim as Terry’s smart, no-nonsense teenage crush.
As accomplished as the ensemble cast is, “A Thousand and One” is a dazzling showcase for Taylor, who embodies Inez’s hustle and bristling energy with ferocity and compulsively watchable charisma. Through the course of the film, she undergoes a breathtaking physical transformation, her sacrifice and devotion to Terry visible in a face that grows increasingly drained. (Inserting real-life speeches from mayors Rudy Giuliani and Mike Bloomberg, Rockwell points out how, even though Inez personifies the principles they pretended to espouse, she and her peers were the victims of their most draconian policies.)
The reference point for “A Thousand and One’s” title hides in plain sight through most of the movie, as does an astonishing third-act twist that leaves viewers and fictional characters alike in a state of numbed shock. As much as Rockwell astutely limns how lives are shaped by forces out of their control, she’s no fatalist: She gives Inez and Terry their happy ending, as hard-won and ambiguous as it is.
This is a tough, beautiful, honest and bracingly hopeful movie about mutual care and unconditional love, with a transformative and indelible performance at its core. “A Thousand and One” isn’t just worth seeing – it’s worth celebrating.