If necessity is the mother of invention, then Inez de la Paz needs to invent a new life for herself and her little boy. Terry is 6 years old and drowning in the New York foster care system. Inez doesn’t have a lot to offer him—she’s out on the streets herself—but she knows how to get what she wants. And pretty soon, the pair are building a life together.

Written and directed by A.V. Rockwell, A Thousand and One tracks Inez (Teyana Taylor) and Terry’s life over a decade, from the early-1990s to the mid-2000s. Terry (played by Aaron Kingsley Adetola at age 6, Aven Courtney at 13, and Josiah Cross at 17) is a detached kid, wounded from the start. 

There’s a hole in Terry he can’t quite figure out how to fill. Having Lucky (William Catlett) around helps. Like Inez, Lucky was drifting in and out of the prison system. But once Inez tells him Terry is his, Lucky tries hard to be a father. Even though neither he nor Terry seems convinced they are related. Not that it stops them from loving each other. It’s just that there’s something missing.

Ditto for A Thousand and One—an interesting story featuring compelling characters, but missing a narrative engine. It’s hard to even call the movie episodic, considering none of the episodes feel like they want to fit. Sure, there are moments where Rockwell teases out the characters’ backstory and plants seeds for future blossoms, but none of them connect in any compelling way.  

What does work in A Thousand and One are the moments of social commentary. Without a home or a job, Inez has limited options, and legal custody of Terry isn’t one of them. So they go on the lam with forged papers and hope people will leave them alone. The city feels conspiratorial in how it forces Inez and Terry toward the margins, be it their new landlord (Mark Gessner) with gentrification on his mind, or the voice of then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani haunting the images of a depressed New York City.

Shot by Eric Yue, A Thousand and One has a grainy visual quality with rich colors that fit Rockwell’s story like a warm glove. But it, too, lacks anything more than appreciation. The film won the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It’s a movie with something on its mind. But it fails to make the proceedings feel like anything more than a series of shots and scenes parading on screen for two hours.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

A Thousand and One (2023)
Written and directed by A.V. Rockwell
Produced by Julia Lebedev, Rishi Rajani, Eddie Vaisman, Lena Waithe, Brad Weston
Starring: Teyana Taylor, Aaron Kingsley Adetola, Aven Courtney, Josiah Cross, William Catlett, Alicia Pilgrim
Focus Features, Rated R, Running time 117 minutes, Premiered Jan. 22, 2023 at the Sundance Film Festival

The above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 30, No. 32, “We are family.”