The Plot: New York, 1995. Fiercely independent Inez (Teyana Taylor) is released from jail. Never one to follow the system, she defies conventions and the foster care system that has placed her 6-year-old son Terry (Aaron Kingsley Adelola) at a remove from her. She needs her son though and makes the critical decision to kidnap him from the foster family. She then disappears into the city, changing their names and reconnecting with former squeeze Lucky (William Catlett). A reluctant father, Lucky still bonds with Terry. Over the next decade, Terry turns 13 (Aven Courtney) and then 17 (Josiah Cross) with Inez wanting him to have a full and successful life as he approaches adulthood. However, the past will stand in the way of progress…
The Verdict: Quietly slipping into cinemas ‘A Thousand And One’ could very well get lost in the pre-summer blockbuster shuffle. That would be a shame actually, as this is very much a word-of-mouth film that reveals its layers carefully and thoughtfully too. It’s a thoroughly impressive piece of filmmaking from a bold new voice in American independent cinema. That would be writer-director A.V. Rockwell, a New York native who developed her script through the Sundance Institute and premiered the film at its festival earlier this year. It also counts Lena Waithe (Queen & Slim) and Oren Moverman (Time Out Of Mind) among its producers – both distinct voices in the independent sector as well. This is very much Rockwell’s baby though and from its vibrant early scenes has the impression of a first feature, which indeed it is.
Not that it comes across as rough or not fully formed. In fact, it’s a fresh, refined and distinctive portrait of a family in various stages of crises over the course of a decade in New York. The time and the place is an important factor here, moving from former Mayor Rudy Giuliani cleaning up the city and Times Square in particular to a post-9/11 environment and the early hints of the forthcoming Black Lives Matter movement. All of this is shot through the perspective of a mother’s love for her son, in it together to get through the daily difficulties of life. Former hairdresser Inez, portrayed with raw honesty by an excellent Teyana Taylor, loves her son and desperately wants a better life for him than she or partner Lucky ever had. She even admits to Lucky that damaged people don’t know how to love each other, but yet she continues to shine through the tears and holds Terry close to her. This is despite the fact that some home truths are going to be hard to hear.
Taking a similar approach to Moonlight in depicting the three formative stages of a young man’s life, Rockwell’s consistently engaging script spends enough time in each segment to get to know Terry as he navigates those difficult teenage years. He also has to contend with two parents who are not exactly role models for proper parenting, yet they provide some structure for his life. Rockwell makes some beautiful observations about coming-of-age along with the complexities of parent-child relationships. This is all without weighing the film down with too much emotional baggage. She skillfully skirts around the potential for mawkish melodrama, instead waiting for the right moment to drop a revelation and then watching its impact on the characters. It’s done in such a subtle way that it avoids the dramatic pitfalls common to experienced filmmakers. It’s as if Rockwell deliberately set out to defy convention and tell her story her way – much like the rebellious spirit of Inez herself.
A Thousand And One benefits greatly from this singular approach to filmmaking, backed up by finely etched performances, a well-positioned camera that gets in close when it needs to and a lively score by Gary Gunn that plays out like an anthem for individuality. It’s gritty but tender, honest and graceful filmmaking from a name to look out for in the future. Whatever Rockwell decides to do next will already have a high mountain to climb after this debut. Seek it out.
Rating: 4 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
In short: Thoroughly impressive
Directed by A.V. Rockwell.
Starring Teyana Taylor, William Catlett, Aaron Kingsley Adetola, Aven Courtney, Josiah Cross.