movie review

Teyana Taylor Is Showing Us She’s a Movie Star

As a young mother in A Thousand and One, Taylor is tenacious, contradictory, adaptable, and raw. Photo: Courtesy of Aaron Ricketts/Focus Features

It’s a shame that our go-to superlative for great acting is that it’s worthy of an Oscar, because the performance Teyana Taylor gives in A Thousand and One is of a sort that the Oscars rarely notice. The role of Inez, a born-and-bred New Yorker who’s fresh from Rikers and searching for her son, Terry, when the film begins, doesn’t involve an elaborate physical transformation or the channeling of a well-known historical figure. Inez, who learned early on to approach the world with her fists raised, can erupt into anger, but A Thousand and One’s most momentous developments — like Inez’s decision to grab Terry out of foster care in Brooklyn and whisk him away to Harlem, where she grew up — unfold in a quiet fashion that does not lend itself to awards reels. But there’s a majesty to the character, and to how intensely Taylor inhabits her, that has nothing to do with speeches and everything to do with watching life leave its marks on her in real time.

Inez, who spends a decade struggling to carve a home for herself and her son out of nothing, doesn’t often have the luxury of feeling secure enough to look ahead and start planning for the future. Fittingly, there’s never a moment in the film — which begins in 1994, when Inez is 22, and ends 11 years later, when Terry is 17 — in which it feels like Taylor is anticipating what’s to come for her character. It’s acting that feels wide open, exposed to every twist of fate and rare marvel Inez encounters. A Thousand and One is the first feature from writer-director A.V. Rockwell, and it’s also the rare one to feel like it would have benefited from the longer runway of a TV show — if a TV show like this could ever get green-lit. From its start, when Inez effectively abducts her kid, Rockwell never chooses the obvious route in her sweeping story. That inciting incident would seem to set up the two of them on the lam. Instead, in a development that’s more clear-eyed than cynical, no one in the beleaguered system appears to register Terry’s absence. “Why’s nobody looking for me?” the boy, who’s played by Aaron Kingsley Adetola as a child and by Aven Courtney and Josiah Cross as a teenager, murmurs with something close to affront while watching kids playing by the school he can’t attend.

In foster care, Terry ended up in the hospital after some uncertain act of abuse or neglect. And while Inez may love him, their life together is marked by its own precariousness. In a sequence reminiscent of Hirokazu Koreeda’s Nobody Knows, he spends the day alone while she’s at work, jumping on the sofa and lounging in front of the TV in the remnants of his spilled cereal, a montage of childhood boredom with an undercurrent of dread. But again, Rockwell doesn’t opt for the expected turn, showing a capacity for generosity that extends to Inez’s on-and-off boyfriend Lucky (William Catlett), who turns up in the living room one day like an ill omen, only to grow into a complicated but treasured presence in Terry’s life. A Thousand and One strides forward across the years, accompanied by news feeds as the Giuliani era gives way to the ascendance of Mike Bloomberg, the audio playing over shots of boarded-up buildings that are then replaced by condos and chain stores. The film’s title refers to the number of the Harlem apartment that Inez, Lucky, and Terry share (the dash in the middle having fallen off), a hard-won sanctuary that’s gradually threatened by the city’s changes.

It’s clear the film has displacement on its mind long before Inez stands on the sidewalk, skeptically eyeing a new white neighbor. But the characters come first, and impassive economic forces become only the latest in a line of threats to their existence rather than the film’s thematic center. The score, by Gary Gunn, quivers with anticipation rather than foreboding. Rockwell does sometimes rush things — there’s a thread about the misogynoir that teen Terry absorbs from the atmosphere around him, for instance, that could have been its own chapter. Yet A Thousand and One is rich and complex overall, the saga of someone battling to build a family and a stable home with no real experience of what that looks like. “Where are your people?” a woman Inez is trying to rent a room from asks her, and while we know that she bounced from foster care to group homes to shelters, nothing prepares you for her plaintive admission that “I lost them,” as though she’d been tumbled through systems long enough for any connections to be buffed away.

Taylor, who made a multipronged ascent to fame through music and reality TV, has been an occasional actor, but this lead role is really something else — one that requires her to be tenacious, contradictory, adaptable, and raw, and to grow up alongside the son she’s determined to raise right. Her Inez, with soaring cheekbones and belly-baring ’90s fashion, can look larger than life, but she’s just one person trying to find her way through an indifferent city. It’s the way Taylor makes you feel this smallness, and the character’s determination to succeed despite it, that you remember.

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