We’re only a few short months removed from Sundance, but as the industry speeds toward the summer movie season, we’re already seeing the festival’s high performers hit theaters. Sundance darling A Thousand and One leaps into focus this week. The feature won the coveted Grand Jury prize at the fest, and its resounding success ensured a fast track to theatrical release. Will the drama easily land with mainstream audiences, or should this wait till awards season?
A Thousand and One follows Inez (Teyana Taylor), a young mother who’s fallen on some hard times. She can only watch from afar as her son (Aaron Kingsley Adetola) struggles through the New York City foster system.
One day, she takes matters into her own hands when the young boy is admitted to the hospital after an accident inside his foster home. Frustrated, Inez checks the young boy out herself and takes him on the run, away from the system, which has forgotten about him. William Catlett, Aven Courtney, Josiah Cross, Terri Abney and Delissa Reynolds co-star in the movie. A.V. Rockwell directs A Thousand and One from their script.
Teyana Taylor is by far and away the MVP in this grounded character drama. She shines as Inez, easily honing in on the strength and power inside this woman. She’s desperate in a rough world, but Inez is more than her situation. She’s doing everything she can to not only move past her mistakes but make sure her son has a better life than she did.
Taylor’s rock-solid portrayal cements the emotion in this complicated yet intimate story. While we’re impossibly early in 2023, this writer hopes we hear more about this performance when it matters most—during awards season.
It’s due to Taylor’s dynamic presence that the narrative lags a bit as the movie progresses. The script spans many years as Inez’s son Terry ages from childhood into his teen years, and with this, he becomes the narrative focus. While the youngster is never bad (he’s stunningly realistic), Taylor’s power is missing when she isn’t onscreen.
A Thousand and One is at its strongest when it focuses on these fascinating characters who are brought strikingly to life, warts and all. However, the film attempts at multiple facets to craft a larger sociological and political point, examining Rudy Giuliani’s mayoral administration and its effects on Manhattan.
Ultimately, these moments feel shoehorned in. While it is undoubtedly an important and applicable point, the film isn’t shot to highlight the world around them. Instead, Rockwell’s shooting style brings a beautifully laser-like focus on the humanity.
The camera remains very close and intimate on the actors. This is a blessing to see the intricacies in these performances. However, it’s difficult to get a sense of the world around the actors. This lends itself to a choppy, almost sitcom-like construction as the movie jumps between these carefully crafted scenes and broad establishing shots highlighting the economic and societal struggles they have no choice but to fight against.
This uncertainty in the structure hangs over A Thousand and One, leading to a final act featuring an “Oooh! What a twist!” that feels out of place in this film. As mentioned throughout, the acting in this movie elevates the action and allows it to hit the needed emotional beats.
However, the final act pulls the legs out from under the rest of the movie. Without getting into spoilers, the twist is interesting and does inject fascinating complexity into these characters. It’s unfortunate, though, that there’s little to set it up. As the script is currently structured, the final act feels rushed and abrupt, which ultimately dulls the power a reveal like this could bring.
It seems to be a recurring pattern throughout A Thousand and One that less can sometimes be better. At its basic level, A Thousand and One is a beautiful tale of a woman fighting for herself and her son. It’s well-acted and incredibly poignant. The stylistic choices injected throughout attempt to elevate this story and make a needed point. Ultimately though, they aren’t needed. They only break up the feature’s fluidity and pull focus from its humanity. Let these fascinating characters do the talking.
A Thousand and One hits theaters on March 31, 2023. Check out our other movie reviews here.
This review was originally published on 3/31/23.