Writer-director AV Rockwell comes roaring out of the gates with A Thousand and One, a Sundance-winning debut film that is sometimes defined by its flaws but nonetheless proves mostly exciting with gorgeous visuals and an impressive amount of ambition both in its style and its story. In this fractured way, the film as a whole serves as a fitting mirror to its lead character Inez (Teyana Taylor), an imperfect but fiery mother always pushing and fighting to grant her son a quality of life that she never had.

This son is Terry (played at age 7 by Aaron Kingsley Adetola) – though he will later go by the name Darrell – a seven year old boy who we first meet as a ward of the state in 1995 New York, taken in by the authorities thanks to a prison stint at Riker’s Island faced by Inez. Upon getting out, Inez’s first priority is to reunite with Terry and find them a place to live, so she, technically, kidnaps him and thus begins, after the acquisition of a fake birth certificate to change Terry’s identity, a hunt for suitable home in Harlem.

It’s the kind of social realism story of people at the margins ‘just trying to get by’ that you might initially think you’ve seen before, but Rockwell thankfully has greater ambition than that. Through two substantial time jumps to set up the second and third acts, we get to see a full decade of Inez and Terry’s (played at 13 by Aven Courtney and at 17 by Josiah Cross) life together in their apartment as they, and the city around them, shift and change. Though A Thousand and One is definitely a bit too long at two hours, this more epic sweep keeps it feeling fresher than a lot of its genre contemporaries, whilst a clear-eyed look at the cynical evils of gentrification gives a furious political kick to proceedings.

In seeing Terry grow up, we get to see Rockwell’s take on not only what it means to be a parent – through the eyes of both Inez and her flighty but ultimately tender partner Lucky (a really lovely performance from William Catlett) – but also a son, as Terry’s relationship with the adults in his life changes. It’s a touching dynamic, played well by Taylor and the various Terry actors, though one that is sadly rather undone by a really strange finale that kicks off with a badly overegged twist and spends the last 20 minutes just dragging the rest of the story down.

What stays consistently excellent, though, is the cinematography from DOP Eric Yue, bathed in beautiful colour and light and providing a wordless yet elegiac ode to Harlem, particularly in the summertime. From the costuming to the shifting tones of the coats of paint in Inez’s apartment, there’s hardly a visually dull moment, A Thousand and One joining the still-too-small club of English-language films that let social justice themes and appealing aesthetics go hand-in-hand. It might spend too much time at the end tripping itself up, but as an introduction to Rockwell’s filmmaking career, A Thousand and One is a thrillingly promising one.


Written and Directed by AV Rockwell

Starring; Teyana Taylor, Aaron Kingsley Adetola, William Catlett

Runtime: 117 mins

Rating: 15