A.V. Rockwell’s feature film “A Thousand to One,” which opened recently after a successful run at the Sundance Film Festival, where it snagged an award, is a story about an African American single mother who’s trying to rebuild her life after a prison stint. Under director A.V. Rockwell’s careful eye—one shaped by her commercials and short films—and the work of her gifted cinematographer Eric Yue, we care about Inez (Teyana Taylor), who’s face-to-face with some of life’s most challenging events. 

Inez is a combination of many young girls who are too young for motherhood, having never had a strong mother or father, or learned those basic skills. Instead, we witness a mother torn away from her son, both (now) the product of the New York City foster care system. 

This story is told inside the city’s accelerated and downright aggressive gentrification and discriminatory policing.

Set in 1993, in the vibrancy of Harlem, we watch Inez parlay her skills as a hairstylist at Rikers Island. Fast-forward to a year later, and she’s living in a Brooklyn homeless shelter, trying to find work and determined to change her life for the better.

On the streets, Inez first re-encounters her 6-year-old son Terry (Aaron Kingsley Adetola). Even at this tender age, he knows she’s not a dependable person and is reluctant to talk to her. He might be young, but his memory of being abandoned on the street is seared into his brain. When Terry is hospitalized after an accident at his foster home, Inez starts to visit, attempting to break the thick ice with a plastic Power Ranger toy. But this kid is being shaped by his surroundings and asks her an important question: “Why do you keep leaving me?” That triggers her own abandonment memories and, in an impulsive move, she takes him with her to Harlem. 

The film does a pivot as Rockwell takes us into their lives together over 15 years, with Terry played at 13 by Aven Courtney and at 17 by Josiah Cross. 

When Inez first abducts her son, the news kept her on edge, but as the years stretched out, they both began to relax as they explored creating their mother-and-son relationship. Way back in the ’90s, when rents were affordable, they find an apartment with a fake ID for Terry, aka Darrell, who starts to attend school, and he’s bright, which opens up possibilities about college but would require additional paperwork that could threaten to expose their shared secret and pull them apart again.

One of the key emotions that runs through Rockwell’s film is empathy, which is a hard, hard one to pull off, but she did it here. You care about both mother and teenage son, and we can clearly see the warning signs of his teenage angst coming toward her, and us, like a moving freight train. 

Inez, like many of us, wants love in her life and reconnects with Lucky (Will Catlett) after he gets out of prison. To some degree, he’s a “father figure” for Terry, but with his own issues; it’s not the best fit, since he disappears for weeks at a time.

The casting is solid, especially with the three actors playing Terry. The director’s eye captures the disappointment and hurt as this character grows up, sadly a soul who has grown accustomed to disappointment. 

And Inez is not stupid—she is aware of the tension in her son. “Hurt people, hurt people,” and they are both deeply damaged people, as is Lucky.

Because of the director’s storytelling ability, we want to see this fragile family unit come together and heal, even though we know their chances are slim to none. Taylor floats the pain to the top but keeps it nicely tucked in. The “in control”/“out of control” balance is tremendous in one scene, where she’s simultaneously laughing and crying while eating a cup of instant noodles and watching reality TV, opening the complexity of her inner life for examination.

Now to the critique. Could it have been trimmed? I think, yes. The theme was correctly introduced in act one and reinforced in act two, but little more was offered to take us into act three. The central question “will mother and son have a relationship” was raised and answered, so there’s clearly solid script development; the product of good “writers’ labs,” as Rockwell shared. 

The result of those workshops is that the characters are alive and filled with compassion and love. It wasn’t easy for any family struggling to make ends meet in New York City over Giuliani’s time as mayor, nor in the following the Bloomberg years. New York is a complicated city, and the optical “crackdown” on street crime threw open racial profiling and stop-and-frisk policies that clearly target people of color. That means that Terry is abused by the police, and slammed against a wall for just walking home from school. 

The property development clearly favors “the other side” while disenfranchising the longtime residents of color in entire neighborhoods. 

This happened and is still happening. This is where the new “landlords” forced people out of their homes by simply making them unlivable, which adds another crisis on Inez’s shoulders while she’s mourning a loss. Inez snapped in act one when she was told she wasn’t a good mother, but by the end of the film, she sees that her sacrifices made her exactly that: a good mother. 

There’s a special place in my heart for the work of DP Eric K. Yue. He has a sharp eye with images that stay seared inside the brain. If it wasn’t for his ability, we would not be able to fall into the marginalized communities. Yue brings visual authenticity and helps create a series of moving character portraits of complicated people living in complicated times. 

“A Thousand to One” is now playing.

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