Wednesday, March 29, 2023

A tough woman in a tough world


   What does it mean to be "with" a movie? For me, it means that from beginning to end, I'm totally absorbed by what's happening on screen.
    I definitely was "with" A Thousand and Onethe story of a mother (Teyana Taylor) who rescues her young son (Aaron Kinglsey Adetola) from foster care. The movie isn’t without imperfections but A Thousand and One overcomes them with emotional power and a fiercely compelling lead performance.
  A singer, choreographer, and actor, Taylor plays Inez de la Paz, a woman we meet when she's released from New York's notorious Rikers Island. Inez hits the streets of Harlem but soon makes an effort to see the six-year-old son she had to abandon when she was sentenced. 
   Without a hint of sappiness, Inez walks out of foster care with the boy. She then begins the difficult task of establishing life with a kid, a task she must accomplish without much help.
    The catch: Because she took the boy without permission, Inez has opened herself to charges of kidnapping.
   Director A.V. Rockwell, who also wrote the movie's screenplay, sets us up for a life-on-the-run urban adventure but the movie's better than that. To her credit, Rockwell has her eye on the long haul, with all its hardships, setbacks, and small triumphs.
  Mostly set in the 1990s, the story extends over a 15-year-period and casts two additional actors to play Inez’s son Terry. Aven Courtney portrays Terry at 13. Josiah Cross takes over when Terry turns 17.
   Because authorities are looking for Inez, she creates a new identity for Terry. She enrolls him in school, gives him plenty of love (some of it tough), and guides him to the point where he's on the verge of applying for college. 
   When it's time to apply for college, Terry needs documentation that Inez can't provide without exposing what she's done.
   Rockwell fleshes out the portrait she paints of a struggling mom with scenes built around a long-standing romantic relationship between Inez and Lucky (a terrific Will Catlett). 
   Lucky moves in with Inez after his release from prison, but doesn't always stick around. He denies being Terry's father but slowly connects with the boy and shares some tender moments when Terry hits his teen years.
   That's a mark of the movie's depth. Lucky may be flawed but we realize he’s trying to hang onto his humanity.
    The story takes place when police crack downs on crime were followed by gentrifying moves aimed at transforming Harlem. Neither Terry nor Inez can escape the cruel consequences of these trends.
   A shocking end-of-movie reveal throws the story out of whack -- in a good way. We’re reminded that what we think we know isn't always true. Before the movie's done, Rockwell not only surprises, she enriches the web of motivation from which Inez operates.
   Rockwell’s bold direction matches Taylor’s vivid performance, ensuring that A Thousand and One packs a wallop.

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