Synopsis: After unapologetic and fiercely loyal Inez kidnaps her son Terry from the foster care system, mother and son set out to reclaim their sense of home, identity, and stability in a rapidly changing New York City.
Stars: Teyana Taylor, Will Catlett, Josiah Cross, Aven Courtney, Aaron Kingsley Adetola, Terri Abney
Director: A.V. Rockwell
Running Length: 117 minutes
TMMM Score: (9.5/10)
Review: I recently finished Hollywood, Sam Wasson and Jeanine Basinger’s 768-page anvil of a novel charting the genesis of the film industry. Wading through chapters on every aspect of the business over decades, I concluded that it is a miracle movies survived as long as they have. We should all be grateful that even the poorest reviewed blockbuster debuted on a second-tier streaming service during the recent pandemic. Even more remarkable is that the independent film trade revitalized because big studios had to learn a thing or two from indies about make-it-or-break-it production stakes and take chances on releasing titles outside of their usual roster.
That’s why “smaller” films like Coda and Everything Everywhere All At Once have nabbed the top prize at The Academy Awards the past two years and how a tiny movie from a first-time director like the Lena Waithe-produced A Thousand and One could arrive at this year’s Sundance Film Festival with a distribution deal (with Focus Features) already in place. Riding a wave of strong buzz, director A.V. Rockwell’s impeccable debut left the festival with the Grand Jury Prize and a mountain of good notices for its star, multi-hyphenate artist Teyana Taylor.
Taylor stars as Inez, recently released from Rikers Island, who returns to her Brooklyn stomping grounds in 1993, attempting to get her life back on track. Complicating matters is the 6-year-old she left behind when she went to prison, a young boy (Aaron Kingsley Adetola) named Terry, that remembers the abandonment and holds it against her even after she tries to make amends. He’s in the foster care system now, a red-tape-laden hornet’s nest she’s familiar with after spending her childhood being moved around. When he winds up in the hospital due to dangerous living conditions with his current living situation, Inez is determined not to disappoint the boy again. So, she takes him.
Without a plan, a job, or a place to live, the following days and weeks are tenuous for the two as they learn to be around one another while finding safety. Inez is constantly in defensive mode, compounded by the threat of returning to prison for the crime she committed by taking Terry. When no one comes looking for him (or her), they breathe a bit easier and establish a life together, eventually welcoming Terry’s father, Lucky (Will Catlett), when he finishes his prison sentence. The years tick by, and we watch Terry grow into a 13-year-old (Aven Courtney) and eventually a sensitive 17-year-old (Josiah Cross) desperate to discover what’s next for him.
Set aside some time after A Thousand and One to meditate on how many outstanding creative forces could come together in one film. Only adding volume to the battle cry that casting directors need more recognition in the film industry, there’s no single performance here that doesn’t leave a lasting impression. Veteran casting director Avy Kaufman worked with Rockwell to assemble a fantastic list of actors who vanish entirely into their roles.
No critical analysis can outline just how good Taylor is…you must see it for yourself. It’s incredible. The part above where I mention actors disappearing into their roles? Taylor becomes so linked up with Inez that you lose the actress early on and almost believe the film is a documentary. These mother roles are a dime a dozen, and many actresses have gotten by with only going halfway, but Taylor knocks it right out of the park. It must be remembered when the Oscars come around next year…it has to. Similarly, Catlett, Cross, Courtney, and Kingsley Adetola are all critical pieces to a familiar story told with unflinching honesty.
I’m conflicted about Rockwell taking audiences through changes in NYC itself, all set to Gary Gunn’s dynamic, lyrical score. I appreciated seeing how the city changed and the brief touches of gentrification without making that the overall focus. However, these scenes weren’t speaking in complete sentences to solidify the intended message. Applause is warranted for noting September 2001 on screen, subtly causing the audience to brace themselves for tragedy and then taking things in an unexpected direction.
Released just as spring has sprung, A Thousand and One is the type of film you’ll want to get in on early so you can recommend it to others before they come knocking on your door to tell you about it. Rockwell and Taylor have worked hard to find an emotional core that allows real feelings to thrive, and the result is a movie that treats the viewer like a mature adult.