Hailed as the city that never sleeps, with everyone from Frank Sinatra to Jay-Z singing its praises, New York City has always carried a mythic allure. The setting of countless films, the city itself is as unique as those who inhabit it. Similar to a giant chameleon changing its colours to match the environment, one’s experience will vary depending on their status in life and the boroughs traversed. In her feature film debut A Thousand and One, director A.V. Rockwell makes the constantly evolving city an integral part of her tale of shifting family bonds.
Winner of the U.S. Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Rockwell’s decade-spanning film captures the rapid gentrification of New York City through the fraught relationship between a mother and her son. Commencing in the mid-1990s, Inez (Teyana Taylor) returns to her Harlem neighbourhood after serving 18 months in prison. Fiercely independent but with limited job prospects, she is determined to find the right grip to pull herself out of the muck.
Establishing a stable footing means building a proper home for her 6-year-old son Terry (Aaron Kingsley Adetola), who is currently in the foster care system. Of course, this assumes she can earn her son’s trust back. Terry has heard his mother’s claims of going straight before, only to have her leave him again. It is only when Terry is injured, after trying to flee his current foster home, that the door towards reconciliation between mother and son cracks open.
Frequently visiting him in the hospital, Inez slowly starts to tape together the shredded pieces of their bond. However, when she discovers that her son’s next foster home will be further away, and fearful of losing him forever, she makes the bold decision to kidnap her son and create a new life together.
Living with the constant fear that the forceful wind of the law will blow down their house built on a lie, Inez changes her son’s name and tries to keep his background hidden. As the years go by, and Terry gets older (played Aven Courtney and Josiah Cross at ages 13 and 17 respectively), Inez does everything in her power to reclaim a sense of home and stability. A task that faces its own sets of challenges when her long-time on-again-off-again love Lucky (William Catlett), who is not keen on being a stepdad, is eventually released from prison.
As the dynamics of their makeshift family navigates its ups and downs, and the possibility of Terry attending college moves from a distant dream to a realty within grasp, the past is never too far behind. Soon Terry must not only deal with a history they have tried to outrun, but the realization that his mother might be hiding some additional secrets of her own.
No matter how close Inez swims to the surface of normality, A Thousand and One frequently reminds viewers of the anchors pulling her back down. It’s not only the weight of the secrets of the past, but the heaviness of a city showing increased disregard for people of colour. Throughout the film Rockwell uses lingering shots of the city and audio of speeches from various political figures, including former mayor Rudy Giuliani, to convey the changing landscape. Once considered a place of home and community, the city becomes a place where stop-and-frisk policies give police free reign to terrorize youth like Terry as residents are systematically pushed out of gentrifying neighbourhoods. The latter of which is captured in the way Inez’ white landlord routinely finds excuses to delay much needed repairs to their apartment, essentially forcing them to live in squalor to encourage them to move out.
In showcasing the depths of hardships Inez is willing to endure to provide for her son, Rockwell’s film offers a stirring examination of motherhood and the resilience that comes with it. One cannot help but feel for Inez even as her misguided and impulsive decisions dig a deeper hole for her to crawl out of. Teyana Taylor gives a blistering performance for the ages, radiating both a momma bear ferocity and rich vulnerability. Carrying hope for the future, while repeatedly getting squeezed by the disappoints of the present, she constantly forces the audience to re-evaluate the dynamics of Inez and Terry’s relationship. When Inez tells her son “I saw someone who needed me. But maybe I’m the who needed you” the emotional punch it delivers feels well earned.
Balancing complex familial bonds with sharp social commentary, A.V. Rockwell’s debut film is a knockout. While the melodrama gets drawn out a little more than needed in the latter half, delaying key reveals, the film remains captivating every step of the way. Marking the emergence of Rockwell as a distinct talent, A Thousand and One is a reminder that home is more than just where you lay your head, it is the family you choose to share life with.
A Thousand and One opens in theatres March 31.