Sundance movie review: 'A Thousand and One' celebrates family joy, turmoil

Teyana Taylor and Aaron Kingsley Adetola star in "A Thousand and One." Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute
1 of 5 | Teyana Taylor and Aaron Kingsley Adetola star in "A Thousand and One." Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

Jan. 27 (UPI) -- A Thousand and One, which won the Grand Jury Prize for U.S. Dramatic films at the Sundance Film Festival, is a moving story about family. The backdrop of changes New York City was going through from 1994 to 2004 anchors the story.

Twenty-two-year-old Inez (Teyana Taylor) gets out of Riker's Island in 1994. She secretly takes her son, 6-year-old Terry (Aaron Kingsley Adetola), out of foster care and moves them to Harlem.


A Thousand and One portrays a slice of life for a single mother and her son through the years. Inez eventually meets Lucky (William Catlett), who initially gets overwhelmed by the demands of a small boy, but comes around and remains in their lives.

First, Inez gets new papers from a hookup. She and Terry live under new names so the foster system won't find them, but still call each other Terry and Inez at home.


There are plenty of frustrating moments where Inez can't get the help she needs. She can be volatile and lash out just like anyone overwhelmed by demands.

But the strength of A Thousand and One is its emphasis on the downtime. Inez, Terry and Lucky live together, Inez cooks, Lucky does grocery shopping and plays ball with Terry.

These are the moments that give Inez the strength to keep fighting, and the moments many other films shortchange to focus on the most dramatic ones. A Thousand and One shows you don't have to choose one or the other.

The dialogue between Inez, Terry and Lucky feels authentic. They use the N-word casually but not gratuitously, and swear when tensions rise.

Their Harlem apartment is relatively nice. The kitchen tiles are noticeably weathered in the '90s, and eventually, it feels like a home.

Over the years, the home will need repairs that would require them to move out. Inez doesn't have options to relocate, so they have to make do until it fully breaks down. That is also a realistic predicament many take for granted.

The move to Harlem coincides with Mayor Rudy Giuliani's campaign to clean up the city streets. By the end of the '90s, 42nd Street specifically is mandated to redevelop.


After 2001, Aven Courtney and Josiah Cross play Terry at 13 and 17 respectively. Terry gets stopped under the new stop-and-frisk policing, and audio news reports of police violence play in the background.

Ultimately, Mayor Michael Bloomberg institutes more changes. A Thousand and One presents the local developments impressionistically, from Terry and Inez's points of view.

It gives the sense of people in the neighborhood experiencing changes. However, they must focus on their immediate lives as the neighborhood changes around them.

Inez pushes Terry to attend a special school he qualifies for, and Terry starts dating. His phony Social Security number becomes a bigger problem the closer he gets to adulthood and applying for jobs.

A Thousand and One manages to capture both a broad time and place and a specifically personal story. The performances are raw enough to tug at heartstrings without making one pity the characters. They just feel real.

Focus Features will release A Thousand and One in theaters March 31.

Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012. Read more of his work in Entertainment.


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