Monday, April 3, 2023

Mother and Child: A THOUSAND AND ONE

As A Thousand and One starts, Inez (Teyana Taylor) is getting out of prison. She’s a young woman. She has no family, no support, and no safety net. It’s 1994. New York City is entering its so-called revitalization, with its then-mayor’s attention on “broken windows” issues. It’s also rapidly pushing out those who can barely afford to live there as is. Inez wants more. Hustling to make ends meet as an independent freelance hairdresser, sees a small boy, barely out of his toddler years, on the sidewalk. “Don’t you remember me?” she asks him. He does, barely. Mostly he remembers how she said she’d take care of him, and then disappeared. “Look at me so I know you not mad,” she says. He’s not mad, just cautious of getting hurt again. We can read that in his hesitantly darting eyes. Eventually, she’ll ask if he wants to live with her for a few days. When he says yes, those days become years, and a secret that grows until it is just an unspoken fact. This makes this film not a thriller coiled around a lingering suspense, but a tender character piece, generous to the contours of the lives it reveals to us.

It’s important that this movie gives us so much and so little at the start. We don’t know why Inez was incarcerated, and we don’t know how this boy ended up so neglected by the foster system that it barely seems to notice when he slips away with her. But we do know she cares about him, and wants a better life for the two of them. This powerful maternal urge drives the story as the film becomes a finely-detailed domestic drama against the backdrop of a world that doesn’t look kindly on those barely keeping themselves from falling through the cracks. Writer-director A.V. Rockwell, in a confident feature debut, centers this woman’s struggles to find love and acceptance and security without turning her into an object lesson or a source of cheap sentimental uplift. The movie’s too honest to cheapen her experience, which plays out less like impoverished melodrama and more like the truth. Here’s an American dream—to scrape and hustle and try every day to eke out just a little bit more in the face of enormous odds, in which deepening poverty or isolation is one wrong step away.

The screenplay, quietly slipping from ’94 into the early aughts with a triptych approach that compares favorably to Moonlight, draws in vivid detail their normal struggles. Both mother and son develop as people and as a family. He grows into a young man with school, friends, and girls to navigate, as she finds jobs to make ends meet, a crumbling apartment to slowly fill with comforts, a complicated love with a boyfriend. This is set against the backdrop of institutional neglect. An absent landlord sells to a worse one. A school sees potential and also backhanded compliments. A good male role model also has flaws. And, of course, social services, and eventually jobs and colleges, can’t be set up on the boy’s fake birth certificate and social security number. This never becomes the main preoccupation of the film—though it also peppers its time jumps with archival audio of conservative mayors promising the city big positive changes that certainly aren’t reflected in the lived experience of its characters. But instead, the movie is wisely complicated and mature in its consideration of its relationships and humanity. It uses a framework of naturalistic sensibility and historical context—its precision set and sound design and costume work is exactly what its time period felt like—to accommodate an honest pessimism about broken systems and cycles of poverty, and a hard-fought romanticism about its characters’ connection and their potential.

Fitting, then, that Rockwell’s film looks lovingly at its performances. The camera is unafraid of vulnerability, pushing close on faces and really seeing them. Teyana Taylor inhabits the role of the troubled mother with a fierce sense of self-protection that barely covers an open wound of vulnerability. It’s a beguiling mix, tough and tenacious in the face of so much strife. Here’s a woman bravely remaking herself from tough times, clinging to her family as she takes what work she can, and what stability she can, to build this new foundation. This sense of discovery, of growing up into oneself through the adversity of youth and of systems built to perpetuate her disadvantage, is twinned with the boy growing older through a few performances from young actors that are so complementary, and so plain with aching vulnerabilities, they make one’s heart swell with sympathy. Both the mother and her child feel this as they yearn for a sense of self against the turbulent confusions of their lives and their times.

And yet Rockwell knows that these larger emotional arcs are nestled not in the stuff of period piece sweep or in a suspenseful conceit ticking away. No, this is a movie about the quotidian stuff of life, for these specific people in this particular time. It’s about the humanity that’s revealed and affirmed through the love they can show for one another. It’s about how love is a force that can give a life meaning, and can last beyond the temporary stuff of logic and laws. Here’s a powerful movie about genuine human connection, and its bolstering powers in the face of long odds. This isn’t a moralizing movie or a sentimental Love Conquers All message. In its perceptive framing—and softly-lit grainy photography close-cousin to a documentary naturalism—it becomes a movie that breathes with the fullness of life. Its characters become people we know, making this not only an involving emotional experience in the moment, but one I look back on as if recalling the story of someone I care about. It imbues Inez’s struggle to rebuild a life and build a loving home with such heartfelt specificity it brought to mind something Salman Rushdie once wrote about family: “sometimes we run from it…and then, very carefully, we build a new version of it for ourselves.” Here we see a woman and child try to make something real and genuine and lasting. I hope they make it.

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