Written and directed by A.V. Rockwell, after unapologetic and fiercely loyal Inez kidnaps her son Terry from the foster care system, mother and son set out to reclaim their sense of home, identity, and stability, in a rapidly changing New York City. Starring: Teyana Taylor, Aaron Kingsley Adetola, Aven Courtney, Josiah Cross, William Catlett, Terri Abney, Delissa Reynolds, Amelia Workman and Adriane Lenox.
Recently there’s been a fantastic string of women directors coming out of the gate strong with poignant, powerful first features. Nikyatu Jusu’s Nanny, Ellie Foumbi’s Our Father, the Devil, Nathalie Álvarez Mesén’s Clara Sola, Alice Diop’s (first narrative feature) Saint Omer and now A.V. Rockwell’s A Thousand and One. However, Rockwell did things differently to each of those directors, she approached her story with patience and played the long game. Calling it understated isn’t quite accurate, as there’s a lot to Rockwell’s style that’s upfront and highly dramatic but beneath that is a humility and brokenness. This is not your typical story of a troubled homelife, it has much more to say and that’s what makes it so compelling.
Rockwell opens up a conversation with A Thousand and One, it’s not just about what’s happening right in front of you, it’s what each moment and the consequences mean in the bigger picture and with the evolution of their beloved community. The way that it moves both in progression and in Rockwell’s direction is remarkably slow, and it’s a risky choice. It may not make sense to every viewer and some may begin to question it as it enters the latter moments but stick with it and all is explained as it brings through a knockout finale. It’s both a strength and a weakness, you do want it to speed up but the ending might not have the same impact if there had been a lot more going on in-between. Rockwell chooses to keep a strong, centred focus for good reason.
A big part of why she’s able to do so is the superb performances that she gets out of every actor involved in A Thousand and One. Three different actors play our stunningly smart, compassionate and vulnerable young lead Terry, from six to thirteen to seventeen years of age, respectively Aaron Kingsley Adetola, Aven Courtney, Josiah Cross. Adetola kicks things off with such a sweet shyness and a protectiveness over Inez (Teyana Taylor), he’s the perfect introduction to this character. Courtney and Cross then show the evolution of Terry’s personality, the two portrayals are so in sync, the film effortlessly moves from one to the other. Courtney builds those feelings of frustration and rejection which Cross has the chance to bring to a wonderful crescendo. His performance in the final moments of the film is incredibly moving.
One of the fascinating things about A Thousand and One is that it splits itself so perfectly between Terry and Inez, it never feels like one completely takes over, which is wonderfully organic. However, in those key moments where Teyana Taylor really does get to shine, she doesn’t disappoint. It’s a tense, affecting and at times, saddening performance. She brings a huge strength and conflict, she’s constantly putting up walls and isolating herself while still wanting love because she simply doesn’t know how to handle it. Especially when it comes to William Catlett’s Lucky, the two have a turbulent relationship but there’s a genuine affection beneath it. Both performances perfectly portray how these characters are products of their environment, for better or worse, and the ways in which they try to change the latter.
You can easily feel the effort that A.V. Rockwell puts into trying to recreate the feel of the city and the neighbourhood, as well as the era. Using actual footage of the city in the nineties and early noughties was a great touch to make it feel more authentic. Outside of that, many of its scenes have an intimacy, it almost feels as if it would translate easily to the stage. Eric Yue’s cinematography is very strong, it brings in colour but doesn’t overdo it, to keep that era feel going.
A Thousand and One is a patient, heart-rending drama that delves into broken homes, gentrification, race and relationships. It’s stacked with fantastic performances, Teyana Taylor’s Inez is a character who you won’t forget anytime soon and each of the young actors portraying Terry are all full of bright talent. It’s one of those films that isn’t just about the experience while you’re watching it, it’s the meaningful questions and discussions that it leaves you with after the credits have rolled.