Sundance 2023 review: A Thousand and One (A.V. Rockwell)

A Thousand and One is an unusually ambitious debut, both timeless in its exploration of motherhood and family dynamics, and extremely timely in the way it represents a tough reality filtered through the dual lenses of race and gender.”

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize in the US Dramatic Competition at Sundance, A.V. Rockwell’s richly textured and emotionally resonant debut feature A Thousand and One follows a young woman who kidnaps her son from the foster care system after being released from prison. While this description accurately lays out some of the central conflicts in the film, it doesn’t do justice to its epic scope, nor does it capture the essence of its multilayered narrative. Rockwell’s film is a decades-spanning chronicle of gentrification and racial inequality, a surprising and moving family melodrama, and a detailed, sophisticated character study all at once. Following its Sundance triumph, it merits further festival play and awards consideration, which could propel it to screens, big and small, around the globe.

We meet Inez in a correctional facility in 1993, but the film quickly jumps ahead in time to depict her reunion with Terry, her son who has been living in foster care during her absence, upon her release. As Inez and Terry escape the system and form an unusual family with Inez’s boyfriend Lucky, several complex questions about motherhood (or the notion of family as a social unit) emerge. Played by Teyana Taylor in an unforgettable performance, Inez is a conflicted woman. She is tough and resourceful, able to persevere through great hardship and genuinely dedicated to her son. But on the other hand, her circumstances and past mistakes make us question whether this escape really is the best plan of action for Terry. We learn that the boy was injured while trying to run away from his foster parents, and Inez has neither a stable job nor a permanent place to stay at this moment of crisis. But instead of amping up the melodrama to manipulative effect, Rockwell finds grace and tenderness in Inez’s attempts to build a new life for her son. They settle into a modest apartment in need of repair, Lucky joins them and gradually comes to share a strong rapport with the boy, and the passing of time brings them together as a family. At its finest, A Thousand and One recounts the ups and downs of this life in a profound, deeply compassionate manner. There is the promise of academic success, but also the obstacle of health issues. Gleeful meals enjoyed on happy occasions are followed by heavy confrontations and familiar disappointments. Life finds its course through a combination of joy and sadness.

This family portrait takes an unexpected turn late in the film when we learn a secret about Inez. It’s not a complete shock (it explains her anxiety about some paperwork and helps us understand why the police let them go when they first escaped), but it’s a revelation that puts everything else into a new perspective. A Thousand and One is reminiscent of Japanese master Hirokazu Koreeda’s work in this regard; it questions what it means to be a family, complicates our existing ideas about what keeps families together, and invites us to rethink our ethical assumptions about the family unit as a socially constructed norm. These are universal themes that have been explored in many great films before, yet Rockwell’s treatment is distinctive for its cultural specificity. A mother-son drama set against the backdrop of economic difficulty and systemic oppression is not exactly a novel proposition, but A Thousand and One finds something new in this premise as a portrait of New York, told from the perspective of a black woman.

The pantheon of New York films is dominated by male auteurs (Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee, as a key influence on Rockwell, immediately come to mind). A Thousand and One is a notable contribution in that vein since the so-called gentrification of the city (particularly Harlem) plays a major role in the story. The apartment that Inez and Terry turn into their home over the years is strategically reclaimed by developers, who initially offer “minor repairs” and end up creating an uninhabitable mess. Eric Yue’s memorable images (gritty and elegant in equal measure) capture the evolution of the cityscape and document how this process of gentrification is experienced differently in Harlem compared to other neighborhoods of New York. There is an unmistakable racial dynamic in play, with white building owners forcing the predominantly black or migrant inhabitants out of their homes for financial gain. Inez is a doubly marginalized character in this setting; as a black woman whose experiences are rarely made visible, she constantly navigates social structures designed to exclude or punish her at every step. A Thousand and One makes this clear through observations about the legal system, foster care, and housing; but perhaps the most incisive bits are focused on education. When Terry’s teacher (another woman of color who is supposed to be a source of support) tries to follow the rules and do everything as instructed by the system, the consequences are terribly painful for all involved.

A Thousand and One is an unusually ambitious debut, both timeless in its exploration of motherhood and family dynamics, and extremely timely in the way it represents a tough reality filtered through the dual lenses of race and gender. As an affecting story of maternal love and resilience, it offers a devastatingly beautiful experience. And as a socially conscious portrayal of black lives in an increasingly unforgiving Harlem, it makes an urgent, topical intervention. With this highly accomplished feature, Rockwell announces herself as a major talent to watch.