Directed by: A.V. Rockwell
Distributed by: Focus Features
Written by Michael Clawson
With period pieces so often reaching far back through history for their stories, it’s refreshing when a movie takes the more recent past as its backdrop. A.V. Rockwell’s Sundance-winning debut “A Thousand and One” does just that. Spanning the mid-1990s through the mid-aughts, this symphonic chronicle of a Black mother and son doubles as a clear-eyed and vivid portrait of New York City as its neighborhoods are transformed by gentrification and local politics. At its fore is the headstrong and impassioned Inez (Teyana Taylor), who shortly after being released from prison, yanks her young son Terry out of foster care – essentially kidnapping him, in the law’s eyes – and strives to give him a stable home. After some desperate searching, she lands a job and a modest apartment, and with phony paperwork for Terry that says he belongs in Inez’s custody and not the state’s, she manages to get Terry into school.
The possibility of Inez being caught for kidnapping is a danger that looms over “A Thousand and One,” and is where the movie does eventually falter. When plot gears begin to turn more quickly near the film’s end, they faintly creak. Rockwell does better when honing in on the subtler contours of her characters. Take, for instance, how tenderly she captures Terry’s trembling nervousness when he approaches a girl he likes, or the longing evoked when Inez dreams of styling hair for a living. Rockwell’s direction is just as striking when she zooms way out and scans the streets and building facades of New York for signs of change (snippets of mayoral speeches by Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg play in voiceover as the camera bends around the city’s skyline). New York City’s vibrant pulse is forever beating beneath Inez and Terry’s feet, and their own fate is inseparably entwined with the city’s political policies. By melding the documentary impulses of her work in short film with the emotional sweep of melodrama, Rockwell more than capably injects both the foreground and background with authenticity.
“A Thousand and One” Trailer
Michael Clawson is a member of the Seattle Film Critic Society you can follow his passion for film on Letterboxd.