Review by Sean Boelman
With A Thousand and One, filmmaker A.V. Rockwell has created what might be one of the most passionate, emotional feature debuts in recent memory. Thanks to an accomplished visual style and great acting, Rockwell is able to overcome some of the pacing issues in the script to make a captivating mother-son drama.
The film follows a mother who decides to kidnap her son from the foster care system, believing that it is not the right place for him, only to create a tension that bubbles up when he becomes a teenager. Recent years have seen many movies about the relationship between a single parent and their child, but few have been as uncommonly empathetic as Rockwell’s debut.
The middle section of the film does drag a bit, but the first and final thirds are so compelling that it is able to recover. Although the beats are somewhat predictable — including a finale presented as a twist that isn’t particularly twisty — Rockwell never loses track of the emotional through-line that makes the movie tick.
Teyana Taylor’s performance as a devoted mother is an absolute powerhouse, and it’s pretty shocking considering that she hasn’t had many acting roles that have challenged her range. However, she absolutely disappears into the role, giving a layered performance that feels like it comes from someone with decades of experience, not a relative novice.
Additionally, the film is gorgeously shot, with beautiful cinematography by Eric Yue, great production design from Sharon Lomofsky, and a lovely score by Gary Gunn. These elements work together seamlessly to immerse the viewers in this world, particularly during the portion set in Harlem in the ‘90s.
That being said, the movie does feel like a missed opportunity to tackle its potentially weighty context. There is plenty of subtext in the film involving poverty and the inefficiencies of the foster care system. On one hand, this allows Rockwell to focus more on the intimate, human stakes, but introducing these elements just to leave them underdeveloped is frustrating.
There is also something left to be desired in terms of the characters’ motivations. Although the core themes of motherhood and belonging are likely to resonate with viewers, the characters needed a bit more specificity to work. Nevertheless, the dynamic between the mother and son is very sincere and largely free of melodrama.
A Thousand and One doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it’s very compelling. A.V. Rockwell’s tender direction and Teyana Tayor’s brilliant performance elevate this beyond the occasionally sluggish script.
A Thousand and One is playing at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, which runs January 19-29 in-person in Park City, UT and January 24-29 online.