A Thousand and One, 2023.
Written and Directed by A.V. Rockwell.
Starring Teyana Taylor, William Catlett, Josiah Cross, Aven Courtney, Aaron Kingsley Adetola, Terri Abney, Delissa Reynolds, Amelia Workman, Adriane Lenox, Gavin Schlosser, Jolly Swag, Azza El, Alicia Pilgrim, Jennean Farmer, Kal-El White, Jamier Williams Naya, Desir-Johnson, John Maria Gutierrez, and Artrece Johnson.
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.
With A Thousand and One, first-time feature-length writer/director A.V. Rockwall reveals herself as more than a fresh, nuanced voice. She’s also adept at placing her characters in familiar situations set across the 1990s-2000s, and not only sidestepping or subverting clichés but finding so much raw honesty that even if an aspect feels forced, it’s easily overlooked because it’s written with sensitivity, care, and truthfulness with dialogue frequently coming back to and deepening character depth. There is an awareness that if the narrative itself is going to function as emotionally riveting, those small rough patches need to be covered up with its strong sense of Harlem undergoing gentrification throughout the years (under the mayorship of Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg).
When New York feels as lived-in as it does here, not just through bustling energy but also transformations for the words, alongside specific recreations of the eras (wardrobes, athletics jerseys, video game consoles, pizzerias, and simply the look of Harlem), and as a changing entity, the obstacles characters face began to feel less like clichéd plot points and more like sad realities conveyed through grounded human drama. Harlem and these characters are connected, elevating the depth of one another to bolster the story’s power.
Since there are multiple time jumps regarding a story that is largely unpredictable as to where it’s going, details will be cut to a minimum. However, it can be said that Teyana Taylor plays Ines de la Paz, a young adult mother of a boy child named Terry (terrifically played by Aaron Kingsley Adetola, Aven Courtney, and Josiah Cross across different ages, each with a deep understanding of the complex familial dynamic and what is triggering certain behaviors). Upon finishing a stint at the Rikers correctional facility, Ines tries to ingratiate herself back into society, looking into honest work as a hairdresser, and casually chats with Terry when he is playing outside his foster home.
Following a head injury at that foster home that leads to a visit to a hospital, Ines and Terry have a galvanizing heart-to-heart where the boy confesses that his life would be better if he were with her. There’s an early piece of phenomenal acting from Teyana Taylor, quietly turning around and placing her head up against the door; she wants to be a mother to this child, she desperately wants to take him out of the foster system but is wrestling with whether or not she is fit to be a mother or should do those things. As the film unfolds, it’s evident that there was even more on her mind when making this decision.
The first of many tricks A.V. Rockwell makes with A Thousand and One is turning what is technically abduction on its head, as the police don’t seem to care too much about a missing Black child. There are reports on the radio and news, but this turns out to be the least of their concerns. Instead, A Thousand and One homes in on the mother-son dynamic, which becomes more complicated with every passing development; Ines visits a friend, gets back together with her ex-con boyfriend Lucky (a movingly layered turn from William Catlett existing somewhere between the problematic father figure and a genuinely loving, positive role model), faces the challenges of gentrification, and mentally battles with herself and her academically brilliant son over what’s best for him.
Smartly, A.V. Rockwell split roughly half the perspective with Terry across different ages (who is given a fake name and papers after escaping the foster care system with his mom), aware that its emotional pull becomes stronger when focusing on how this complicated upbringing affects a child. A Thousand and One goes a step further, examining the Blackness and gender of the situation, particularly how Terry is more forgiving of his father and more comfortable shrugging off his mother’s sacrifices (at one point, she emphatically states that only another Black woman looks after Black women).
One plot point to A Thousand and One seems fairly easy to pick up on and predict (which might be intentional considering the writing here is so methodical and purposeful) but nonetheless twists the dynamic around into another shape. It’s about love, potentially suggesting that there are 1001 different ways to show that affection or start something meaningful. The film cuts into your heart in just as many ways.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com