A mother and son struggle to survive in a gentrifying New York City in this Focus Features release

A Thousand and One

Source: Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

‘A Thousand And One’

Dir/scr: A.V. Rockwell. US. 2022. 117mins

An impoverished single mother and her young son navigate life in New York City in A Thousand And One, the affecting feature debut by writer-director A.V. Rockwell. The film adopts a measured tone, offering an honest depiction of the struggles faced by the poor, with the film strengthened by Teyana Taylor’s weary performance as a woman fighting to keep moving forward, despite all the outside forces conspiring to drag her down. Spanning more than 10 years, in which the boy grows up and begins to understand more about his mother, this modest drama resists easy happy endings that are far out of reach for this luckless but resilient family.

It would be simplistic to describe A Thousand And One as a critique of the American dream, but Rockwell clearly illustrates how, for some families, it’s a dream that will never be realised

A Thousand And One screened in Sundance’s US Dramatic Competition, where it won the top prize. This will undoubtedly help draw attention to this Focus Features release when it opens in the US on March 3, even if its lack of star power may dent theatrical prospects. It will also help in overseas markets, whether at festivals or on streaming.

In 1994, Inez (Taylor) is attempting to pick herself up after being recently released from prison, learning that being free isn’t the same as having a new lease on life. Finding it difficult to continue her career as a hairdresser because of her criminal record, she seeks out her six-year-old son Terry (Aaron Kingsley Adetola), who has been handed over to the foster care system in her absence. Even though the boy has been assigned to a new family — and despite his reluctance to reunite with his mother— Inez essentially abducts him, deciding that he’s better off with her.

Rockwell eventually jumps forward in time — first to 2001, then to 2005 — to chart how Inez and Terry’s relationship evolves over the years. (Aven Courtney plays the boy in the 2001 segment, with Josiah Cross portraying Terry at 17.) This narrative fast-forwarding will draw comparisons to Moonlight, but A Thousand And One is equally interested in the mother and the son — not to mention the crucial addition of Lucky (Will Catlett), an old flame who comes back into Inez’s orbit, treating Terry like his own son. But it’s an indication of the hardscrabble world that these characters inhabit when Lucky notes that it’s difficult for two former felons to raise a family — like Inez, he has a past he’s trying to put behind him.

The film’s time period is hardly arbitrary, with Rockwell looking at New York at a moment of rapid gentrification that threatened the city’s most vulnerable communities. Without being didactic, A Thousand And One underlines how those economic realities negatively impact Inez, whether it’s in the form of a white landlord trying to hasten her departure from his apartment building or Lucky’s eventual exit from the family amid stress of mounting bills. Meanwhile, the three different actors who play Terry chart this young man’s slowly growing recognition of his difficult home life. Just as importantly, we see how an impressionable teen can internalise feelings of worthlessness because of his family’s financial hardships.

A Thousand And One introduces a few melodramatic twists in its later reels that feel out of place with the more realistic, understated tone that preceded it. Indeed, what’s most moving about the film is how little it tries to elicit our sympathy. Rockwell respects her audience enough to trust that we’ll be invested in Inez and Terry’s odyssey because of the nuanced performances.  To that end, Taylor refrains from showy dramatic fireworks, playing this harried mother as a woman who has channeled all her energy into ensuring her son’s (hopefully) bright future. Like Terry, Inez was a product of the foster care system, and Taylor subtly conveys her character’s sense of permanent brokenness. Although Inez’s life gets a little better over the years, she never completely loses the pain of being poor, and neither does her son. That shame sticks to them in different ways — most shockingly near the film’s end, when Terry discovers something about his family that upends his worldview. 

It would be simplistic to describe A Thousand And One as a critique of the American dream, but Rockwell clearly illustrates how, for some families, it’s a dream that will never be realised. Most of the time, keeping a roof over their heads is as ambitious as Inez is willing to allow herself to be. 

Production companies: Sight Unseen, Hillman Grad, Makeready

Worldwide distribution: Universal Pictures

Producers: Eddie Vaisman, Julia Lebedev, Lena Waithe, Rishi Rajani, Brad Weston 

Cinematography: Eric K. Yue

Production design: Sharon Lomofsky

Editing: Sabine Hoffman, Kristan Sprague

Music: Gary Gunn 

Main cast: Teyana Taylor, Josiah Cross, Will Catlett, Aaron Kingsley Adetola, Aven Courtney, Adriane Lenox