Reel Reviews | A Thousand and One (Sundance ’23)

by Tim Gordon

Can this rose that grows from the concrete find happiness?

A young struggling mother and her son navigate life on the streets in New York City in director A.V. Rockwell’s gritty debut film, A Thousand and One.

It is often said that there are eight million stories in the naked city, some better than others, but this one spanning nearly two decades centers on a single mother, Inez (Teyana Taylor) who is attempting to build a successful life for her son, Terry while bouncing around from place to place. Recently home from a stint on Rikers Island, Inez’s skill as a hairdresser should secure her a gig but her temper always seems to get the best of her.

As she is settling in, she spots her son, Terry, around the neighborhood. Now four, Terry is living in a group home and is indifferent to Inez, still upset that she left him alone when she went to jail. The two begin the process of bonding and when he suffers an accident that sends him to the hospital, Inez decides to reunite with him, taking him from the hospital so that the two of them can be together.

Homeless and with no money, their journey is fraught with difficulties, but she fiercely defends her son and demands that he shows her the same loyalty. Bouncing from home to home, because of Inez’s temper, they adopt an “us against the world mentality,” as they begin the process of building a life together. Inez soon secures a residence but still must keep Terry out of sight, since the authorities are still on the lookout for the kidnapped child. She secures fake documents, which allow him to go to school and gives Terry much-needed stability.

Things begin to shift when her old flame, Lucky (William Catlett) returns home from prison. Initially, he is distant from Terry and the young boy begins to feel as if he is not wanted and will come between him and his mother. But soon, the thaw between the two disappears and Lucky takes the young boy under his wing and becomes as important to him as his mother. Lucky and Inez decide that despite their checkered pasts together they can give Terry the life that eluded them both. They soon marry, but just as they are headed to marital bliss, trouble arises between them, which in turn affects Terry. He catches the attention of a school counselor, Ms. Tucker (Amelia Workman) who provides Terry with an opportunity to attend a better school.

But as he matures, he enviably begins to question the whereabouts of his father. As his mother is slow to give him answers, he becomes more defiant. With things strained between Inez and Lucky, Terry begins to take matters into his own hands, which will lead him down a road that will ultimately change his life forever.

This well-constructed atmospheric story constructed by Rockwell, in her first feature film, largely succeeds because of the attention to detail in her screenplay. Armed with a string of short films, Rockwell channels all of that passion into this story. Beginning in 1994, Rockwell centers her story in New York City during that time period, warts, and all. She uses the music and important events of that time in the city to enhance the film’s gritty authenticity. The story feels very personal to Rockwell, as the film explores just how much of a sacrifice a single mother endures to make sure her child has all the opportunities they need to succeed.

But the film’s biggest surprise is the performance of Taylor. In her first starring role, she is a revelation. Known primarily for wearing her emotions on her very visual face, you feel every pain, her triumph and see her frustration as she carries the movie on her back Maybe, the role fits Taylor like a glove because she is New York City girl and understood the nuances of life uptown and because of that experience, Taylor was able to add authenticity to the character from observing the rhythm of life in the city. Being a veteran of years of being in front of the camera, performing in various music videos may have given her the confidence to let it all hang out.

Rockwell also pulls inspired performances from Josiah Cross and the veteran Catlett, who provide context and emotion to this mother/son saga. Either way, A Thousand and One is a strong debut film for Rockwell and serves as a launching pad for more opportunities for Taylor, the talented rose that grew from concrete, blooming with assistance from talented Rockwell.

Grade: B