An ending can change your perception of the movie you just watched. A Thousand and One, which won Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize, throws a curveball during its third act that presents the characters in a new light. And yet, the characters still stay true to themselves. While the film doesn’t justify the actions of one character, it does leave you asking, “Did they do the right thing?” I’m not sure, but any film that conjures such conflicted feelings is doing something right. As challenging as A.V. Rockwell’s feature directorial debut can be, it’s ultimately a rewarding film about motherhood and the extreme lengths a maternal figure will go to.
Teyana Taylor is primarily known for her background in music and choreography. In film, you might recognize Taylor from her supporting roles in Madea’s Big Happy Family and Coming 2 America. A Thousand and One is the leading showcase that Taylor has been waiting for. She’s unrecognizable as Inez de la Paz, who seeks to reunite with her young son Terry after being released from prison. Finding Terry in the hospital, Inez takes him without alerting the social workers or foster parents. Moving into a run-down apartment, she cooks up a new identity for Terry so that they can start fresh. Being 1994, it’s easier for Inez to deceive the authorities, who aren’t scouring the streets for the missing boy.
There’s a continuity error early in the film as we find Terry playing with a GameCube controller several years before that console hit the market. Could the filmmakers not find a Super Nintendo or Genesis controller? This hiccup aside, Rockwell effectively recreates an era that many reflect on with fond memories. For Terry and Inez, though, there are no rose-tinted nostalgia goggles. It’s a bleak upbringing with the shadow of Rudy Giuliani looming over the neglected side of New York. Inez and Terry may have each other, but distance can be felt between the mother and son throughout. At times, Terry shares a closer bond with Inez’s boyfriend Lucky (Will Catlett). Like Juan in Moonlight, Lucky may not be Terry’s biological father, but he treats him as his own.
Similar to Chiron in Moonlight, Terry is portrayed by three actors as we watch him grow. Aaron Kingsley Adetola brings a quiet nuance to the six-year-old Terry. Jump ahead several years, Terry is now played by Aven Courtney and it’s 2001. The film doesn’t spell out whether this chapter takes place before or after 9/11. Either way, change is on the horizon as white people seize control of the neighborhood. By the time Terry is 17, now played by Josiah Cross, the world around him is collapsing. Inez risks losing their apartment to a landlord who appears friendly until revealing his true colors. Terry’s high marks in school may be his ticket to a better life, but the past comes back to haunt his family in more ways than one.
The final act will have you emotionally shattered, but not to the point of being unrepairable. Although the relationships between the characters will never be the same, their actions feel earned by the time we reach the bittersweet ending. At almost two hours, A Thousand and One could’ve gotten to its resolution quicker with the middle portion lagging. As a whole, though, this is an uncompromising, beautifully-acted portrait of a disenfranchised family trying to get by. You may not agree with every person’s decision, but they all do the best with what they have.