Director A.V. Rockwell makes her feature debut with “A Thousand and One,” which won the grand jury prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The film is divided into three parts like Barry Jenkins’s Oscar-winning film, 2016′s “Moonlight.” Through each section, we follow Inez de la Paz (an excellent Teyana Taylor) and Terry, the son she illegally removed from the foster care system when he was 6 years old.
As Inez navigates a series of hardships against the backdrop of a New York City run by former mayors Rudy Giuliani and Mike Bloomberg, we meet three iterations of Terry (played at 6, 11, and 17 by Aaron Kingsley Adetola, Aven Courtney, and Josiah Cross, respectively). Unfortunately, none of the actors are as compelling as those who brought “Moonlight”’s Chiron to life. It’s not their fault, as Rockwell’s screenplay keeps Tee (as his mother calls him) at a distance.
We never really get to know who Tee is, even when the third section of the film tragically pivots from Inez’s story to his. A more fleshed-out character might have grounded a last act burdened by an unconvincing plot twist, an odd moment of wish-fulfillment, and an over-reliance on the clichés that befall Black people in urban-set films.
“A Thousand and One” begins in 1994. Several shots of New York City (Including the Twin Towers) fill the screen before we meet Inez. She’s leaving Rikers Island after a yearlong sentence. A former hairdresser, Inez returns to her old neighborhood of Harlem with no place to live and no means of income. She is also without Tee, who was placed in foster care upon her arrest.
After initially interacting with Tee on the street, Inez discovers that he has been injured after falling out the window of the foster home during a botched escape. She removes him from his hospital room, gets him some fake papers and a new name, Darryl, and sets out to build a life for the two of them.
Before long, they are joined by Lucky (Will Catlett), Inez’s former boyfriend, who may or may not be Tee’s father. They form a family unit that is loving, yet rife with difficulties that are often beyond their control. “What do two crooks know about raising a family?,” Inez asks. Thankfully, “A Thousand and One” avoids simple or contrived depictions of parenting in a low-income environment. Catlett and Taylor portray the couple’s relationship with an unforced realism that affirms their love for each other and their devotion to the son they’re raising.
There’s another character in “A Thousand and One”: New York City itself. Rockwell’s depiction of a rapidly gentrifying city is the film’s crowning achievement. As the timeframe jumps from 1994 to 2001 and 2005, boarded-up storefronts become more prevalent. White residents start to appear in greater numbers in Harlem, as well as shady landlords using nefarious means to evict Black tenants so they can renovate and rent their apartments for more money.
Even the cinematography by Eric K. Yue changes with the city, replacing the warmth of the 1994 section with a colder, more polished sheen. I lived through this era, and its re-creation made me shudder with recognition.
As these changes occur, the voices of Giuliani and Bloomberg play on the soundtrack. Stop and frisk becomes a plot point, as does the deconstruction of neighborhoods of color that have existed in New York City for generations. When Inez asks a friend if “you wanna see New York City turn into the suburbs,” it’s a righteous swipe at the era’s policies and the people who are trying to make that happen.
Based on the way “A Thousand and One” ends, I’m assuming its title hints that its story is a fable or folk tale not unlike those that make up “One Thousand and One Nights.” Though her debut is not entirely successful, I look forward to seeing what Rockwell does next.
A THOUSAND AND ONE
Written and directed by A.V. Rockwell. Starring Teyana Taylor, Will Catlett, Aaron Kingsley Adetola, Aven Courtney, Josiah Cross. 117 minutes. At AMC Boston Common, Coolidge Corner, Landmark Kendall Square, and suburbs. R (a lot of profanity, none of it wasted)
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.