'A Thousand and One'

Teyana Taylor gives an effortlessly compelling performance as Inez in "A Thousand and One."

Motherhood and identity play in tune with an ever-changing New York City in the fantastic Sundance Grand Prize Winner "A Thousand And One." 

"A Thousand and One" is a film designed to spark discussions about chosen motherhood and racial tensions in major metropolitan cities. Realistically honest and visually unique, this is a film worth your time.

The film centers around a single invigorating character: an impoverished single woman named Inez (Teyana Taylor) who kidnaps a child named Terry and raises him as her own. It is a gorgeous and down-to-earth family drama drenched in political commentary with the backdrop of Harlem in the early 2000s. 

A movie with this central idea could easily become cliché, but this directorial debut by A.V. Rockwell is anything but. Inez and her dominant mothering are effortlessly compelling. I was surprised by how quickly I fully accepted how she acts and wants to be seen. Actor Teyana Taylor brings immense empathy and drive to Inez through an astonishing performance. Hopefully, Taylor will take on more of these dramatic roles because this is a difficult performance, and she has it in the palm of her hands.

Inez falls in love with a man she meets named Lucky (William Catlett). While a "step-father" relationship could feel contrived, the story develops a wholly fleshed-out father figure for Terry to attach to. Every stroke of the film is made with texture and realism, no character is without flaws, and no decision is made with everyone's best interests in mind. There is a lot to admire in the dynamic between the three lead characters, even when the multiple actors for Terry (Aaron Kingsley Adetola and Josiah Cross) fall short in some of the more emotional scenes. The love and care put into the layered characters are supported by the excellent use of New York City as a backdrop. 

The pressing conflicts shown in the film include NYC/Harlem changing, institutional racism, gentrification and aspirations for the community. We meet Inez in Harlem in 1993, cutting hair after getting out of Rikers correctional facility, the neighborhood and her history weighing heavily on her shoulders. The film's comments on systemic issues are never met with a simple solution and never feel corny or artificial. If anything, how the years in the film combine into what feels like one large scene makes it feel even more truthful. Even when the film leads you in one direction, it quickly jerks you back down to the characters. 

 Caught up in the emotion, the characters flail and rip each other apart, often without words, whether in their eyes, blocking or their distinct choices. The cinematography emphasizes this with beautiful film grain and a scenic shallow focus that bolsters the vignette story structure. Startling cuts and close-ups make the audience feel every moment; the style and characters are interwoven.

"A Thousand and One" is an energetic film on the surface with its verbose New York sensibility. While that persists in the story for better and for worse, what shines through is the incredible character work, thought-provoking themes and editing that show these ideas to the fullest extent. Characters fear their future and past actions, making them lash out. You realize when you see all the dimensions of this troubled trio that you may be watching their last attempt at a better future. 

Rating: 8/10