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'A Thousand and One' tells a tale of fierce maternal love under trying circumstances

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

The movie "A Thousand And One" tells a tale of fierce maternal love under trying circumstances. It won the jury prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Critic Bob Mondello says it's sharply observed.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Brooklyn in the 1990s. Twenty-three-year-old Inez, who meets the world with swagger to spare, has just been released from Rikers Island when she spots her 6-year-old, Terry, who entered foster care when she went to jail.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A THOUSAND AND ONE")

TEYANA TAYLOR: (As Inez de la Paz) Just let me see your eyes so I know you're not mad at me. I'm staying out of trouble this time.

MONDELLO: Terry uses his friends as cover, and Inez doesn't press. But a bit later, she learns that he's in the hospital after jumping out a window at his foster home. She visits him, and this time, he's more receptive, though his jumping means his situation will likely change.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A THOUSAND AND ONE")

TAYLOR: (As Inez de la Paz) I think they're going to move you. I don't know where yet, but I'll see you soon.

AARON KINGSLEY ADETOLA: (As Terry) When?

TAYLOR: (As Inez de la Paz) I don't know yet.

AARON: (As Terry) Why keep leaving me?

MONDELLO: Inez sees the pain in his gaze and makes the sort of snap decision that's landed her in trouble before.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A THOUSAND AND ONE")

TAYLOR: (As Inez de la Paz) Would it make you feel better if you came and stayed with me?

AARON: (As Terry) Yeah.

MONDELLO: In seconds, they're fugitives walking out of the hospital, couch surfing to avoid social services, then getting a cheap Harlem rental where Inez gives Terry a new name, new clothes. And when he presses...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A THOUSAND AND ONE")

AARON: (As Terry) Where's my dad at?

TAYLOR: (As Inez de la Paz) He's gone. But you wouldn't have liked him anyway. I got somebody else in mind.

MONDELLO: A new father.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A THOUSAND AND ONE")

TAYLOR: (As Inez de la Paz) Terry, I want you to meet Lucky. Lucky's going to be moving in with us.

MONDELLO: She also enrolls him in school where, with her always pushing him to achieve what she didn't, he thrives. Yes, she can be abrasive and, with Lucky, combative.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A THOUSAND AND ONE")

WILLIAM CATLETT: (As Lucky) I'm not about to sit here and argue with you.

TAYLOR: (As Inez de la Paz) That's real easy for you to say because you get to be the saint while I'm stuck here fighting these wars all by myself.

MONDELLO: Still, Inez is a devoted, protective mom. The fact that she's kidnapped a ward of the state doesn't go away. But as the years pass, Terry, played by three actors at different ages, flourishes to the point that a school guidance counselor is urging him to dream big.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A THOUSAND AND ONE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Have you thought about MIT, Harvard?

MONDELLO: Applications for college, of course, will require documents, a birth certificate, say, that could expose their secret. Inez, who struts with anxiety-tinged bravado as played by recording artist turned actor Teyana Taylor, hopes to finesse that. But first-time writer-director A.V. Rockwell shows her hemmed in, increasingly embattled.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A THOUSAND AND ONE")

TAYLOR: (As Inez de la Paz) I'd go to war for you - you know that? - against this whole city. But they're not breaking us up this time.

MONDELLO: As that line hints, a gentrifying 1990s New York is an active character in "A Thousand And One." The era's racial profiling and stop-and-frisk policies make Terry's walk home from school a risk-filled gauntlet. Inez deals with landlords intent on pushing families of color from Harlem's safe haven. And when she looks at her son, she feels she's failing. Damaged people don't know how to love, she laments. But as Lucky points out, she and Terry are both damaged.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A THOUSAND AND ONE")

CATLETT: (As Lucky) Teenagers hate everybody, but I do sense a little void in him. The first couple years of his life, he ain't had nobody. Kid's still walking around here with a broken heart.

MONDELLO: Compelling as all this is, the filmmaker is building to a startling last-minute reveal that will have you rethinking every sacrifice Inez has made. Character portraits just don't come sharper than "A Thousand And One." Portraits of their eras this sharp - more like 1 in 1,000. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOME WITH YOU")

FKA TWIGS: (Singing) I didn't know that you were lonely. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.